Producers and project managers are both responsible for managing productions, they need to be excellent communicators who can navigate stressful situations calmly. Both need to be effective at coordinating and collaborating with diverse teams of specialists, partners and clients - which implies a wide range of tacit skills (a topic which I'll write about in the next issue).
That being said these roles traditionally have different areas of focus and responsibilities that require very different personalities. In film or live production the roles are separate and these differences are clearly defined, which isn't the case in creative technology where the Producer title is used a catchall for both roles.
Let's take the film industry as a reference. In Hollywood a producer is typically responsible for overseeing the creative aspects of a project, such as the development of the script, the selection of the creative team, and the overall vision for the project. They're also responsible for securing funding and partnerships as well as managing the budget and broader scheduling for the project.
On the other hand the project manager would be responsible for overseeing the implementation and operational aspects of the project or of their domain within the production, creating and managing plans, coordinating with teams to ensure that tasks are completed on time and within budget.
The personality traits required for either role are significantly different, for example I would consider myself an average project manager - it's a role I've had to learn and apply in my career but not one I excel at.
Benefits of separating the roles
In my opinion the key difference for producers in creative technology in comparison to film is the importance of adaptability, which is essential to lead teams on frontier projects. Producers are generalists who need to handle uncertainty well, using their knowledge in multiple disciplines to reconcile technology and creative ambition with a client's strategic goals. They inspire their teams by making inclusive and transparent decisions that steer the project.
Project managers must ensure that tasks are completed accurately and efficiently. They are specialists who use their knowledge of a domain or of collaboration processes and workflows to keep teams on track and happy, deliver projects on time while maintaining a healthy budget. It's just as challenging, but the source and scope of the difficulties the project manager should be responsible for are different.
In smaller studios a single individual is likely to be responsible for both roles, while in larger agencies they are sometimes separate. I personally believe that this separation of roles would benefit the smaller teams even more, leveraging each individual to the fullest inevitably benefits studios most. Understanding these differences and enabling them allows each individual to thrive, which in turn helps the team and the business. A mismatch or bundling of both roles can lead to anxiety and frustration when expected functions of one role aren't being fulfilled.
For example when project managers are forced to perform the producer's role on top of their own (or vice versa), they need to learn the attributes and skills for both and are understandably focusing their efforts on the role they are most suited to - which may or may not be what is expected but which will definitely create missed opportunity or inefficiencies.
Defining each role empowers project managers or producers to narrow their scope and focus, improving within their craft and leveraging their personalities to the fullest.
- Adapt. Producers understand that uncertainty management is their responsibility. They thrive when the unexpected occurs and use these moments as opportunities to innovate or find solutions that safeguard both the team and the project.
- Invent. They create conditions for diverse teams to excel within uncertainty. Creative projects often require different approaches with diverse constellations of talent, there won't always be a guidebook with a step-by-step approach that can be repeated.
- Lead. Producers inspire and motivate teams towards a common goal. They collect information from the team to make decisions quickly, before minor oversight or internal struggles escalate into chaos. These decisions need to be rooted in competence and understood by the team.
- Advise. They act as experts who can use strategic, technical and creative knowledge to make recommendations that help the client make decisions. This makes them well suited to business development and pitchwork.
- Organize: Project managers need to be highly organized and able to manage multiple tasks and responsibilities simultaneously, while maintaining attention to detail.
- Planning: They need to be able to develop and implement project plans that outline the steps necessary to complete a project on time and within budget. This often requires expertise in a certain field.
- Communicate: Project managers need to be excellent communicators and listeners, coordinating partners and team members to overcome the daily hurdles of production. This enables them to identify problems when they surface and find solutions as a team. When the scope of the problem becomes too vast the producer would get involved.
Choosing which role you are most suited for empowers you to leverage your personality at work, increases the odds that you will enjoy the challenges you are responsible for handling, enables you to make better career decisions and outlines the skills you'll need to learn to excel in your craft!