I've faced my fair share of surprises as a producer; projects being cancelled abruptly, endless requests for revisions, projects stalled due to disagreements on deliverables. I've even had my work go unpublished by clients - after the full cost had already been invested. In these situations, everyone ends up equally frustrated. But I've come to realise that the key to overcoming these challenges is understanding the context beyond our project.
Whenever I start working with a new client, I always make a point to ask questions about their business, their vision five years from now, the team's priorities etc… While these questions might not seem directly related to the project at hand, they help to better understand the work we need to do, the stakeholders involved, and gather additional context that might prove useful later (if only to justify creative decisions as strategically sound in relation to the broader context).
A lot of these questions take place during the Discovery phase, which we’ll look into later in the course.
Understanding context layers
When I write "strategic work", I'm referring to the importance of understanding the various layers of context on any given project. Our productions are very niche and expensive, they're generally subject to scrutiny from multiple layers of context.
Tom Critchlow describes these context layers and catastrophic events in his book, the Strategic Independent:
There’s a certain kind of experience that I want to describe where everything goes to shit. Certain events in business collapse the environment. For example - let’s focus on the context model for app design, and assume that the Growth objectives are “in crisis” - this could be missing targets, people change, overspend, change in marketing strategy etc.
These catastrophic events collapse the environment and cascade downwards. Every circle inside gets ignored, paused, cancelled, changed, redefined. These events are felt like system-shock for anyone operating in these lower circles. But I think it’s way easier to instead always be searching upwards for more context awareness - i.e. working strategically. This helps you ride out those catastrophic events with more planning, awareness and foresight.
Since reading this a few years ago I've tried to be more strategic, mapping out the circles of context that influence the project. This understanding allows me to anticipate and adapt, ultimately mitigating a lot of the unpleasant situations described above and delivering work that aligns with the client's objectives.
In the increasingly dynamic world of digital, the role of the producer is not just to manage projects but to deliver meaningful results to our clients, stay on track despite the inevitable surprises and help create an environment where innovation is possible. This requires a shift in focus from traditional project management to a more strategic and adaptive approach. I believe producers must embrace strategic thinking and stewardship as core aspects of their role.
Examples of strategic vs non-strategic approaches
- Delivering perfectly on time and budget vs. producing value
- Sticking to the plan vs. finding the right plan
- Being able to lead a team vs. creating conditions for talent to thrive
- Never getting it wrong vs. Not letting our fear of doing it wrong get in the way of trying
- Following the process correctly vs. Dismantling process that doesn’t work
- Producing cool projects vs. Producing results for clients, colleagues, users and studio
- Controlling client involvement vs. Involving the client whenever possible and beneficial
- Communicating confidently with clients vs. Helping clients feel heard
The strategic producer is not just a role but a mindset that embraces complexity, uncertainty, and change, and leverages them as opportunities to deliver better outcomes for our clients and our teams.
Embracing the responsibility of stewardship
At the heart of this approach lies the concept of stewardship, which refers to strategic planning on behalf of both clients and teams. The Helsinki Design Lab defines stewardship as a form of agile leadership that acknowledges the inevitability of change and embraces adaptability over strict adherence to a predetermined plan:
Stewardship shapes the course of innovation; it is not a neutral role. Think of stewardship as a form of leadership. One that acknowledges things will change along the way for better or for worse, therefore demanding agility over adherence to a predetermined plan. Many individuals who work in alliances or collaborative endeavours act as stewards almost naturally. If you are used to continually calibrating the goals of a project with the constraints of your context, you are practicing stewardship. If you maintain a constant state of opportunism and a willingness to pivot when progress on the current path is diminishing, you're a natural steward.
Producers, by the nature of their role, possess the qualities of stewardship. We're uniquely positioned to guide and shape the course of innovation in a project. By understanding and embracing the responsibility of stewardship, we can lead with more humility and confidence, proactively seeking to challenge our clients when it is necessary (and possible) and articulate these parameters to the team. It's also much more interesting to calibrate project goals to align with the constraints and opportunities of each client's unique context.
Provide adjacent context
Another essential skill for strategic producers is the ability to explore adjacent context. This involves thinking even more broadly about an industry or issue, looking for unconventional or surprising analogies and insights that can bring new information that may not be apparent to our clients.
This knowledge positions us as the experts, the stewards who intend to deliver the most value from their investment. Trust and understanding are fostered and the workflow becomes more effective.
Acting like an expert
To be perceived as an expert, you need to act like one. This means enforcing boundaries, continually developing your skills and knowledge, and not being afraid to charge more for your services. If you are not occasionally losing business because of high prices, you're charging too little. Charging more supports your claim of expertise and gives you room to grow, expand, learn, and experiment.
Clients contact us with a challenge or opportunity they need resolved, but the solution they've identified in the brief is often incorrect or the problem is somewhat different than what they've understood. We need to analyse the problem and test those assumptions before accepting them as the basis for our future work. Otherwise we risk delivering a project that will provide very little value.
Consider this and either find ways to be more strategic with your current clients by proactively asking them questions on their long-term strategies and getting involved at a higher level.