Sunday, May 19, 2013

Forced Marriage of Convenience & The Pivot Workshop

Just been to a preview of just under 10 projects to be presented to the Dutch public in a couple of weeks. As in previous years, these ideas/concepts have been put together by matching journalists and designers, giving them a small working budget (about 10,000 Euro per team) as well as a deadline to present their ideas to the public.

We were told that around 2-3 out of 10 ideas and concepts eventually get commissioned by (mainly) public broadcasters. Last year the system did indeed trigger a couple of ideas which are now in the later stages of production.

Taking a completely different approach to building a TV documentary can work by doing exactly the opposite from what is usually done. It's the way TV production companies come up with a new TV format. Analyse the old programme. Write down the elements of the original, then do exactly the opposite. It's the way the BBC moved from a programme with Delia Smith cooking in a kitchen to Ready Steady Cook.

The problem is that this year the projects are too far advanced for them to pivot. And in most countries, the commissioning process is changing rapidly as broadcasters run out of cash. Commissioning editors want ideas that already have an audience. I fear most of the projects this time round will fail before the summer is out. So is there another way?

Learning from Start-Ups

By comparison, I've have done some recent work for a leading start-up accelerator. As a selection mentor, we're always told by the originators of the Lean Start Up methodology that the strength of the team is far more important than the quality of the idea. Great teams with a mediocre idea can always modify or pivot their business into something else. Sony started life by making rice cookers. Brian Millar points out in an excellent article on pivoting that the photo-sharing service Flickr started out as something called Game Neverending. Paypal was originally just for the Palm Pilot users to beam credits to each other via infrared. Twitter began life as a podcast subscription service called Odeo (to which I subscribed).

Film-maker Ondi Timoner made this short video with Dom Sagolla, the nineth employee at Odeo. He went off to work for Adobe and is now at Chaotic Moon Studios which builds great ideas for mobile. More about that pivot here

Back to the projects I saw last week.

What could have happened instead?

I would have taken the Sagolla approach and organised a pitch workshop for the teams about 1 month into the project. By that time they have an outline of what they're thinking about. Time to test whether their idea really matches the information needs of the audience. More often than not, the original ideas don't pass their first contact with the audience. Assumptions are made that "people will like this".  Or creatives assume that the way they use the media is the way everyone else does. Rarely the case.

The Pivot workshop is a mix of the creative teams and selected members of the public. And rather than having the teams pitch their idea and waiting for a reaction, they turn into in a research meeting. They discuss what these audience members do when searching for particular information. How do they amuse themselves when they a moment to spare? What are their favourite websites and why do they keep going back? What apps have their bought for their mobile phone? The insights that the public bring to these meetings are sometimes confrontational. But there is still time for the teams to adjust the plan so they have a new "production vision". Then they can work on a pilot based on the input. And get a powerful story together that  commissioning editors will understand.

Lessons Learned:

  • Audiences should be at the heart of everything you do.
  • Pivoting is not a sign of failure. Learn Do Learn is the most efficient way of moving forward.
  • Pivot early before you start building scenarios or shooting footage.
  • If the story is not clear to you, then it's not going to be clear to the audience.

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