The Rise of the Producer
The Real Winners of the Oscars (and what it tells us about innovation)
No doubt you have completed at least one Oscar ballot in anticipation of this Sunday’s 2015 Oscar telecast, the grand dame of Hollywood’s awards show season. Along with the Golden Globes, the Screen Actor’s Guild Awards, the Spirit Awards, the Oscars not only honor the best performances of the year; they give us a window into the complex and collaborative effort it takes to produce these acclaimed creative endeavors. Beyond the teams of stylists who dress the stars for the red carpet, perhaps even the late great Joan Rivers would agree that bringing new ideas brilliantly to life — and the screen — is the most exciting accomplishment of all.
As an innovation adviser and educator, I study how successful new ideas take hold and create meaningful value in people’s lives. In traditional businesses and organizations, most efforts to launch something new fail before ever reaching real customers. So what’s the secret that makes Hollywood a thriving factory of successful innovation and creativity year after year? What may seem unique to the entertainment industry may provide deeper lessons about how to make creative and collaborative endeavors successful, well beyond who wore what and which actresses make the “best dressed” list.
Let’s start with the real force behind that coveted “best picture” statue. Most likely, it’s not the movie’s star or celebrated director — it’s typically an unknown name who accepts that final award: the Executive Producer. Though the title is often thought of as the procurer of seed money, an Executive Producer does much more than fundraise. Producers are the tireless financial, resource and operational engines that “make ideas go.” For businesses, it’s like a Chief Operational Officer (COO), Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), and Chief Talent Officer (CTO) all in one. In fact, you could argue that an Executive Producer is the original founder of a startup who seeks to gain audience attention (i.e., competitive market share), critical acclaim (i.e., respected features and functionality) and box office revenue (i.e., financial return).
Even more remarkable, their highly productive startups emerge from a fluid and competitive ecosystem of diverse talent that comes together for a unique project and then disbands when done, only to recombine in a new configuration to create something entirely different and equally remarkable the next time. They’re like mini “tiger teams,” designed to maximize the best talent and potential in order to serve the specific context and goals of a project.
Unlike most roles in business that focus on functional or content expertise, an Executive Producer takes on any work that needs to get done to move the project to the next phase. She spans boundaries between organizational silos and outside partners to deliver on the aspirational creative vision while navigating the uncertainties, ambiguities, and constraints along the way. While there is no single definition of what it means to be a “successful producer,” nor a clearly laid out path to excellence (no “Masters in Production Administration” degree), there are important skill sets that top producers share. Producers can toggle between the strategic vision of the project and the practicalities of making it executable; they recognize that bringing ideas to life requires hustle and determination; they wield influence without authority by accessing multiple currencies and trusted networks; and they artfully manage and risk and reward at the same time.
Producers are “strategic togglers”
As ambidextrous thinkers and doers, producers judge when to be generative and open to new ideas, while also focusing and delivering on project deadlines. They are masters of managing directionally: up to the visionaries, side-ways to their peers, and down to the folks who responsible for day-to-day execution. They instill inspiration to stretch and take creative risks among their teams while honoring the boundaries imposed by non-negotiable constraints.
Producers are productive hustlers
Producers are often called in to move the impossible to the possible. They are relentless in helping the idea live another day. Without losing sight of the big picture, they can take the practical next step. What needs to happen? Who needs to be involved? What resources — financial or otherwise — are required to hit the next milestone.
Producers are currency traders.
Bringing a new venture to the world requires a flexible notion of what success looks like. It can be all too easy to concentrate on financial returns alone and allow conservative collaborators who favor safe plays that will deliver on the numbers to dominate. Pushing the creative boundaries means challenging these partners, which producers do by empathetically paying attention to where resistance comes from and creatively reframing risk/reward and winning/losing in response. This moves a reactive “no” to a more supportive “yes.”
Producers are network weavers
Producers build diverse networks of creatives, funders, strategic partners, expert technicians, craftspeople, and logistical support. They look beyond transactional deals to create relationship-driven exchanges of value. As a result, people return their phone calls and reply to their emails and texts with an enthusiastic “OK!”
Producers manage risk and reward
Great producers manage risk proactively by taking on a healthy paranoia of what could go wrong. They spend time on the “shop floor” looking for signs of fragile cracks or destructive variances before they escalate to devastating problems. Whether it’s a fraying interpersonal relationship between critical players or a supplier that starts to slip on deadlines, producers “sweat the small stuff” to minimize potential friction and a deadly downward spiral.
On the eve of the Oscars, our world is marked by even more complexity and change than years prior, with increasing demands on organizations to deliver impact and results. How can we apply lessons from Hollywood producers to spark successful innovation in other fields? We can start to identify individuals who have the potential to be producers and give them the opportunities to play that pivotal role in our own organizations. Making world-changing ideas a reality: that’s something to really applaud.
Thanks to Nancy Murphy and Aliza Gazek for their contribution on this piece.