The Secret to Managing Creative Projects (while looking for the next big hit)

by Wes Dening

In any industry, innovation is essentially an arms race. If you’re not creating the next big thing, someone else is seizing the opportunity to define it.

The problem is, there’s a lot of time between the moment when you first envision a new concept and the moment when it actually hits your market. How you handle the time between those moments can make or break your business.

You need to be thinking about what’s happening next while you’re working on what’s happening now.

The Two Halves of Innovation: Production and Development

In my job as a television producer, I focus on two extremely different skills at once: development and production. Those terms are specific to my industry, but you can think of them as ideating and executing — the two halves of innovation. Development is all about dreaming up unique, provocative ideas and embracing the prospect of “what if?” Production involves executing on that vision. It’s making something come to life while retaining the magic of the original idea.

To keep each half strong, you have to feed both. Focus too much on production, and you’ll have nothing new in the development pipeline; focus too much on development, and your shows in production could fail to live up to the promise. There’s an expectation that your hands will be all over the projects you sell, so it’s important to infuse your DNA into the work. Splitting energy between production and development is a delicate balancing act, but it’s necessary for true innovation.

Consider this: I once put every drop of my energy into a show I was producing — writing, shooting on every location, overseeing the show’s post-production — but that meant I had zero new business lined up when that show ended. I hadn’t thought about my next project. I now try to have anywhere from five to 15 new ideas in active development while I’m producing a show. This allows me to move from just-finished projects to upcoming ones immediately. I now manage multiple projects in production, with a pipeline of shows that will feed into my calendar. It’s thanks to delegation and focus.

When working on current projects, I need to juggle a number of timelines and people: showrunners, talent, storytellers and creatives, producers, a legal team. There’s also plenty of administrative work, including the need to manage budgets, cash flow, and scheduling. Ideating new projects involves several of the same tasks and individuals, but it’s more about market dynamics: How far ahead can you stay of industry trends and buyer wants?

The juggling act gets a lot easier if you have a team of experts who you can trust when you delegate tasks. You are leading the effort, and it’s critical that you provide clear direction and support. Still, a solid team that carries out the day-to-day tasks will prevent you from burning out and keep your projects on track.

Staying on Top of What’s Now and What’s Next

Regardless of your industry, you likely have to optimize what’s in development and what’s in production to give your creativity and innovation the best shot possible. Here are a few ways I stay level-headed while coming up with ideas and managing a pipeline of projects:

1. Make “no” a part of your vocabulary.
This is the biggest tip I can offer, and it’s also a lesson I learned the hard way. People constantly pitch me new material — a lot of those ideas sound fantastic, but I can only take on so many projects. I used to pounce on any idea I loved, spending months working on a project even if there was no chance someone would buy it.

Learning to say “no” to even good ideas is essential to keeping your sanity. This was how Steve Jobs managed to maintain a laser focus on what truly mattered while he led Apple to incredible growth. Passing on projects can offer a huge boost to your career, as it enables you to double down on winning ideas.

2. Get serious about scheduling.
Your task list will run wild if you don’t rein it in. Think about the broad categories your daily tasks fall under, and then use those categories to chunk similar tasks into specific parts of your day.

I’m most creative in the mornings, so I set that time aside for solo projects. This leaves my afternoons open for larger collaborations with my team members. I use my evenings to tie up the day’s odds and ends, including responding to emails or other small items. Scheduling is key for making sure you have a flow for your process.

3. Carve out time for creativity.
If you don’t have time blocked off specifically for unrestricted creative time, you’re not being your best creative self. You’re also not staying on top of projects old or new.

To innovate and create, you need to guarantee you have free headspace to put new concepts down on a page. Add this creative time to your schedule and treat it like any other meeting — no skipping it!

4. Look to your team for help.
Your team will help you achieve a balance between ideation and execution. Meet with your whole team weekly to go through the status of your projects to ensure you have a good pulse on what’s happening now and what lies ahead.

Rely on your team to keep you in the loop, but you can also lean on them to keep new ideas, market trends, and audience insights top of mind. Without other people contributing to the creative energy and managing production-type tasks, you won’t be able to keep up.

Balancing current projects with new ones sometimes pulls you in two directions — there’s no doubt about that. You have to know your market intimately, cooperate with other experts, and have a solid process in place. Once you learn to manage this balancing act, you’ll be jumping from one project to the next with ease.

image credit: transformgov.org

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Wes Dening is the executive vice president of development & programming at Eureka Productions and an award-winning TV producer, with content broadcasting in more than 55 countries.

 

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