PROJECT MANAGEMENT: Project management by any other name

How do you bring disparate group of technicians, creatives, financiers, producers – not to mention highly strung actors – together to create something that will resonate with an audience and, most importantly, reap return on investment?
Dunedin film-maker Robert Sarkies, who came to nationwide prominence with Scarfies, says it comes down to knowing precisely what you are trying to achieve, communicating this effectively and monitoring progress closely.
Which could make for very short article… except that he also has advice on how to achieve this and what to do if things go pear shaped.
“The most important thing is to know what you’re making. That’s essentially how I operate – which sounds really obvious but, weirdly, lot of times when things go wrong in the film industry, it’s often because the person at the heart of the project doesn’t quite know what they’re making. Or they haven’t clearly communicated it to the people who are making it for them,” the film-maker says.
He can’t remember who said ‘film-making is like an artist painting canvas with 200 people holding the paint brush’ but it resonated strongly leading him to the conclusion that his job as director (aka the project manager) is to “know what I’m going to make, what I’m going to paint in that analogy, and to inspire everyone else to be painting with the same strokes”.
Sarkies says from experience that if he gets those two things right, he generally ends up making the film he set out to make – no matter how many people he’s working with.
Except that it’s not always that easy and, experience again has taught him that if things derail then it’s usually down to communication problem. Something he always blames himself for: “communication is always two way thing but if I’m supposed to be communicating my vision to my team and member of my team didn’t get an aspect of that communication then how can I blame them.”
Despite the need for people to ‘get’ Sarkies’ vision, he doesn’t seek out colleagues who simply tell him what he wants to hear and do what he wants them to do. His aim is quite different. It is to find collaborators who can listen to what his vision of the film project is and be inspired, and feed that inspiration back into the project.
It’s method he strongly believes can apply to all projects be they film-making, engineering or IT.
His other technique is to make people relax about offering average ideas as he firmly believes that you’ve got to go through few average ideas to find the good ones. “Quite often when I’m working with people, I’ll go ‘ok this might be stupid idea but let’s just try it to find out how stupid it is’ and what that does is it relaxes them and if the idea is stupid no one loses. You lose maybe 30 seconds of time talking but you’ve got the team dynamics going and you’ve got people’s confidence,” Sarkies says.
Film, he explains, is like any other project in that it’s huge series of decisions. And to lead successful project he goes back to his core principles – know what you’re making and communicate that successfully. That, says Sarkies, is the only way to survive the constant barrage of questions and decisions project manager faces.
“So whenever I get lost and I’m not sure then I go back to what is that core, what is at the heart of the thing that you’re making. And I really believe that’s where people go wrong with all sorts of different projects, they forget what it is they’re making and make decisions in the moment that don’t relate back to the original idea. And I believe that’s the same in business,” he says.
Other aspects which correlate to business are budgets and timing/deadlines – both of which Sarkies ensures are tracked to the minutest detail on his sets. He says this is the only way to keep track of progress.
Sarkies’ final words of advice are to expect things to go wrong. On film set, for example, he deals with lot of intangibles and sensitive equipment meaning surprises are commonplace.
“Generally when things go wrong it forces you into direction you weren’t necessarily expecting – but again, as long as the decisions relate back to the original core, you’ll still end up making something that reflects what you started with.”

Robert Sarkies will present the keynote address, “Managing the creative project. Or the art of painting picture with 200 people holding the paintbrush”, at the upcoming PMI conference. www.pmi.org.nz

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