When Resultant Images won a lucrative contract for the design and development of 18 multimedia learning products, the managing director was exultant. Not only had he secured the contract, but he had done so against tough local competition. What’s more, he had secured it because his previous products had been fresh, innovative and exciting. He immediately acted to woo the best designers, programmers and graphics artists he could secure into the company and expanded his workforce from seven to 19.
The team he put together was young, enthusiastic, creative and highly committed. It was also inexperienced. The field of multimedia was still so new that no one working in the field could be considered really experienced, and the technology had yet to be thoroughly tested, so no one was yet sure of its capacity. On top of this, the team at Resultant Images was largely unfamiliar with the exigencies of working in a commercial production environment.
The contract required the development of 18 products over a two-year period, which, it was believed, would make for tough but realistic deadlines. The MD split his workers into four teams. An administrative team was made up of himself, the general manager, an administrative support person and a sales/design member. The other three teams were design teams. One focused on existing contracts, and two were to work mainly on the new contract.
Problems emerged immediately. Resultant Images had won the contract on the basis of its innovative training ideas. The chief designer came up with an innovative design for the whole project, but it was barely within the programmer’s ability to manage with the existing technology. Extra resources were not available for research and development, and deadlines were tight.
The first prototype developed to show the client was disappointing to everyone involved. It was slow, it ran shakily on the PC and the graphics did not match the designer’s concept. The client loved the innovative concept but was disappointed by the amateurish execution. Resultant Images agreed to fix the glitches; after all it was only a prototype.
As time went on, two big difficulties with the project emerged. First, the project brief was unclear, and issues such as the content of the programs had to be clarified. The client had called together a committee to clarify content for each program, but due to the client’s operating procedure, the committee representatives were all on two-week rotating shifts, and came together only once a month. It became impossible to get decisions made. A compromise was hammered out wherein the script and visual storyboard were sent to site for sign-off. But, even so, as each script needed to be reviewed by safety, environmental, engineering and operational specialists, many of whom were unavailable, this was still short of satisfactory.
Second, whatever was created attracted an “Is that all?” response from the client, who was used to high-end game technologies. The limited capacities of the training product seemed pedestrian in comparison. The client was used to driving a Porsche; they weren’t impressed with something that felt and looked like a 1970s Ford, even though they wouldn’t be paying Porsche prices.
As the weeks dragged on and no final product was delivered, the client became impatient, then irritated. The pressure was getting to the staff: the designers blamed the technology and programmers; the programmers said the design specifications were near impossible to execute with the platforms they were using; the graphics people complained that they were constantly being asked to change things.
In addition, the MD and the chief designer kept “pushing the envelope” of the possible. Conscious that their product had to be innovative and exciting, they kept reworking the basic ideas in an effort to make the product more interesting and exciting. The client liked the ideas but wanted to see finished product. The designers and graphics people wanted the product to be so good it would stop traffic. The programmers just wanted it to run without crashing.
As pressure increased, production fell further behind schedule. Other products for different clients were experiencing difficulties, and key personnel were seconded to get their projects out of trouble. The MD thought that the general manager was not exerting enough control and arranged to become more involved in the day-to-day running of the organisation. He called each staff member in for an interview. The staff generally resented this move. A lot of covert threats were flung around, time was wasted, people were upset and nothing positive occurred.
Salaried staff were told that if they did not meet deadlines they would not be paid. Contract staff were threatened with having their contracts withdrawn for non-performance. Anxiety, frustration and anger were the result. People were working long, unproductive hours, even sleeping under their desks for a few hours so they could keep up the pace of the 16-hour days they were putting in. The MD reviewed all work then added requests to make the product more “innovative”, often prefacing his remarks with: “Now, I want you to find a way to make x happen.”
People were recruited to help out. A scriptwriter was employed to “assist” the designers who were writing the scripts. This just meant that the designers had to brief the scriptwriter, then review the work. No time was saved, and the chain of command had been extended by another link. An additional learning-design expert was called in. He had lots of ideas on how to change and improve the design; but each proposed change would take more time.
It seemed that the organisation was designing a product to meet its own agenda of excellence and innovation, and neglecting the fundamental requirement of providing the client with a working product on site as quickly as possible.
After one memorable staff meeting, 11 staff went to the general manager and threatened to resign if the MD did not stop interfering. The chief designer approached the general manager privately and said she had grave doubts that it was possible to make money out of multimedia development. She explained that the technologies and programs available to such a small organisation could not hope to match the millions expended by games designers, and the expectations of the clients, the users and the design teams were set by the latest products on the market.
She pointed out that even if a heroic effort were made and the first two products were delivered by the new (extended) deadline, at the end of two years the product and original design specifications would look old-fashioned, clumsy and slow, and it was unlikely that the client’s workforce would want to use the product. Resultant Images could not afford to keep changing platforms and learning to use the latest programs in order to meet the galloping expectations; but if they did not, in two years the company would be a dinosaur.
How can you manage new technology and its development when the parameters are always unclear or shifting? Did the MD’s autocratic approach cause the problem or merely point out the problems? The staff desire to provide the best product was working against the need to deliver a workable product. How should this have been handled? What are the long-term options for RI?
This case study was prepared by Hazel Wemper
Margaret Jackson FAIM is the managing director of JSA Design, a Brisbane-based graphic design studio Established in 1991. JSA Design has been responsible for producing corporate communication pieces for several large companies, government departments and corporations.
A business is like a piece of fabric: woven threads merged together to create a whole. When the systems and structure of the business begin to fail or the fabric is not strong enough to withstand force, it unravels, frays and sometimes breaks.
As a designer and thinker in pictures, I find that a simple analogy sums up my perception of business. The fabric may be fragile or strong and tightly bound at the edges with the capacity to have pieces added in a patchwork fashion. A shoddy job of adding a new piece to the fabric without taking the time to stitch it on carefully leads to loose threads and the potential for that piece to disintegrate.
Adding a new piece requires planning and design. The new piece may become the showcase: a rich tapestry that excites and shows off the innovative ideas and vision of the original groundwork.
The planning of the new piece required thorough conception and teamwork to ensure that all the “weavers” are aware of the goal and final product. Their single skills are brought together and the synergy created allows for the result to be more spectacular than any one “weaver” could have comprehended.
Unfortunately, Resultant Images was so focused on the final result that it neglected to ensure it had sufficient knowledge of the processes involved and the steps required. The master (the MD) had the vision and the individuals were not lacking in skills, but the project was neither planned nor managed effectively. The final masterpiece will never be defined in this instance because technology is changing so fast and expectations in this field are already way beyond the collective capabilities of the company.
As the deadlines loomed and passed people became more frantic and began to make makeshift repairs to their work, resulting in a justifiably annoyed client. In this case the company was brave to handle such a project – had it checked out its competitors it would have found that they too had invested in the latest software and hardware only to find it immediately obsolete. From a business perspective, the managers of Resultant Images need to sit back and rest a while, watching and learning from others investments and taking the opportunity to learn from their research.
If the company had worked more closely with the client – explaining its position and shortcomings (for example, the lack of knowledge) – it could have offset those shortcomings by offering a product within its means and capabilities and at a far lower cost. By paying so much less for this product, the client would have understood and accepted the situation more easily.
The MD is an entrepreneur, innovative and gung-ho, backed by capable technicians and managers. His mistake was to take on a project far beyond the company’s capabilities and, consequently, he is on the verge of disaster.
This could have been a win-win situation, but due to the bad management of the account, the company should cut its losses, admit it is out of its depth, and work out an exit plan that can salvage some of the work done. In this case, pouring more time and money into the project will not redeem it.
RI would benefit from reflecting on the type of work it did when it started, reviewing early successes and repeating those processes. The staff involved in the last project should be collectively debriefed and all positives salvaged from the operation. The skills and products could be used in the planning and development of other projects.
RI has invested a lot of money for invaluable strategic training by making fundamental tactical errors, and it has only one way to go: onwards and upwards.
Stef Dunn is multimedia production manager at FOCUS Productions in Brisbane. FOCUS is one of Australia’s leading developers of audio-visual and interactive media for the corporate and government sectors. Stef has more than 10 years experience in the design and development of interactive media in educational and business settings.
Managing new technology is not fundamentally different to managing anything else. At its core is the management of people and skills. Technology is merely a tool used by people to develop new media products. It ought not be allowed to drive the agenda.
It is important to provide for creative time in the schedules of multimedia design and development staff. Designers and programmers need to be constantly expanding their capabilities, absorbing new methods and technologies as they appear. The key here is to ensure that only the technologies and approaches with which staff have had time to familiarise themselves are incorporated into project development. To make a saleable product it is often necessary to take new technical paths. So, to make best use of the creative time, staff will generally require the guidance of a technically savvy supervisor.
The staff responsible for product design must have a clear understanding of what is technically feasible with current skills, technologies, budgets and timelines. It is imperative that the design of a product reflect what is achievable within the profit requirements of the business. Achieving this outcome is usually more about managing clients than it is about staff. Clients must be educated to the extent that their expectations of the product are realistic.
Interference from the MD of Resultant Images exacerbated a problem that already existed. The main hurdle in most multimedia projects is ensuring that a client’s expectations of the product are realistic. This crucial first step in the project seems to have been missed. Many multimedia projects are won on the basis of innovative and creative ideas. This is necessarily so, as making multimedia has much more in common with making art than it does with manufacturing a television set. However, it is essential that the direction and function of that art is clearly specified and communicated to the client.
It is common for multimedia projects to change substantially over their timeline. Managing client and MD-imposed change is the secret to success. Change is imposed for two main reasons. The first is almost always the result of a lack of understanding of the limitations of the technology by clients and managers. The second arises from a valid need to ensure customer (and MD) satisfaction. An educated customer with realistic expectations will generally impose little change on the project.
Multimedia design and development staff are invariably driven by a desire to do something that has not been done before. However, the first priority for every project should be to deliver a product that meets the client’s expectations on time, and at a profit. Large projects with extended timelines are not good candidates for a team to move outside their current abilities. In this sense the problems began when Resultant Images tendered for the project. All approaches to content to be included in tendered proposals should be known solutions or should be subjected to thorough trial before submission.
Once the team members found themselves in the position of potentially delivering a substandard product they should have focused on the positive components of the project and emphasised them.
Often six programmers are better than one, and bringing their collective ideas together will almost certainly result in improvements. Managing this process requires great team-management skill as well an ability to speak the same language as the programming staff. It is essential to remember that multimedia development tends to be the domain of two types of people: failed artists who know how to code, and failed programmers who know how to draw.
Successful multimedia projects – those that meet everybody’s expectations as well as actually working – are invariably produced in close-knit team environments in which everyone involved has creative and functional input.
The long-term option for Resultant Images is to master the technology or die. Mastering the technology means not re-inventing the wheel, and ensuring that every project is developed from a base of at least 70% tried-and-tested technical solutions used with flare and imagination.
Management should also recognise that there is substantial risk in taking on long-term projects in an environment of extreme technical flux and changing client expectations. Although large projects seem lucrative, they are often the projects that come to market looking old and mundane. A small organisation ought not to try matching the game-development sector in terms of budget; quality corporate and educational multimedia does not have to look or behave like the latest 3D game. A product can be innovative and effective even though it relies on existing development approaches.
Resultant Images should consider the implementation of a procedural system to manage the multimedia development process. The procedures need to cover specification documentation – encouraging client involvement, sign-off and milestones, beta testing and quality assurance. By spending more time holding clients hands through the design and development process, Resultant Images will find that its own, and its clients, expectations are more realistic.