You Failed…Now What?

May 3, 2019

Failure is a part of any business, but how you process and recover from failure can make a big difference on how you succeed next time.


Unsatisfying Or Full-On Failure Of A Project: What You Do Next Is Important

Like many of you, I go into every project thinking ‘man, this is going be awesome!  What an opportunity! The clients are going to be so happy with my work!’

I envision high-fives all around at the end of a review session and a stream of compliments that puts a smile on my client’s face and my own.

The reality, of course, is that not every project is a success – sometimes the reason for the failure of a project is pretty obvious, sometimes the root of a project not succeeding or feeling less than satisfying is harder to diagnose.

Over the years I have had a string of projects that haven’t felt great and few that were just well…dumpster fires.  In our line of work, I think it’s easy to let project failures get to you – suck out your enthusiasm for finishing, color grading and working in a creative field.  To be honest, after the few not so stellar projects that I have had recently, I really let those failures get to me.

Ask my partners, my family, my friends and they would all describe my behavior as Eeyore like… moping around with a ‘whoa is me’ attitude.  After feeling sorry for myself (a smidge of self-pity isn’t necessarily bad) I decided I needed an attitude change, and wanted to grow and get better and learn from project failures.

In this Insight, I’d like to share a bit of my thinking about how to analyze project failures and how to grow from the discoveries you make about why a project failed.

The Project Postmortem

I hate the idea of a ‘gut’ feeling.  Sure, being instinctual is part of being a savvy business person and can inform creative decisions in the grading suite, but a feeling is not tangible.

It’s likely that a couple of months from now, you won’t be able to put your finger on exactly what it was about a project that made you feel like it went south. I think the same thing could be said for projects that went swimmingly well.  Since feelings (or our least our memory of feelings) aren’t all that reliable, I started to do a formal postmortem after each and every project.

Make it a hard rule that after every project, you sit down to spend the time to complete a postmortem on a project. Really analyze what went right, what went wrong and how you can improve.

 

Sounds like work you probably don’t want to do right?  I understand, but after a year or so of being steadfast in completing a project postmortem, I’ve found it to be a fantastic and dependable resource for understanding where my company, and where I am doing well or not doing so well.

Here are some analysis categories to include in your project postmortem with some specifics in parenthesis:

  • Initial communication & project bid process (promptness of your emails, phone calls, detail of bid. etc.)
  • Cost & asset assignment (bid too high, too low? have the right gear? the right people?)
  • Quality of schedule (not enough time allocated, juggling too many projects)
  • Workflow design (providing clients with prep and hand off info, designing the right project workflow)
  • Creative approach (processing client input/reference, grading technique)
  • In project communication (in the suite, email, phone calls)
  • Project wrap up (deliverables, billing, using the project for portfolio)

Of course, the more granular you are about your analysis categories the better, but you don’t want to be so granular that this analysis feels overbearing or too much like work.  The balance that you should try to strike is a detailed snapshot of the project that you can come back to and understand, but not so detailed that it reads like a transcript of the project (plus that takes a lot of work).

In what form or medium you do a project postmortem is up to you. I’ve been using a simple spreadsheet. I save each one with the name of the project and the date I completed the postmortem.

If you’re consistent with doing a project postmortem, over time, trends will emerge allowing you to then fix those pain/failure points. At the very least, a collection of postmortem analysis serves as a story of your business over time.

Five Categories Of Failure

In the 14 months that I’ve consistently been doing project postmortems, with the exception of a few outliers, the majority of the projects that I work on when they go south they tend to go that way due to one (or combination of) of 5 reasons.

Sure, there are times when it’s stupid stuff that torpedoes a project – the client got fired by their client, legal said a whole act wouldn’t pass, etc. However, in general, project failures come down to 5 main failures that I’ll detail below.  Instead of speaking about these issue in the abstract, I’d like to provide an anecdote for each category so that the issues can be a little more relate-able.

Addressing Financial & Business Failures

Often, I find that my financial and or business failures are brought about by not sticking to my guns, or just being lazy.

In September 2018, I had bid on a 27 min short doc – shot well on a couple of Sony FS7s.  The film was about 315 total shots.  I flat bid the project at $3600 or 12 hours (1-1.5 days) at our standard rate. Probably a little more time then it really needed, but I like padding things a bit.  The project was set to happen on a very slow week at the end of September.

The client came back and told me that $3600 was over their budget but they had $2500 planned for the project and asked if I’d be willing to take the film on for that amount.  Given the very slow week, I agreed even with the 30% discount.

 

Remember the mantra! No Agreement, No Work! Project agreements can save a huge amount of hassle when it comes to project expectations, schedule, and payment.

After talking to the client in detail (or what I thought was a detailed chat) about the look and feel of the project it was determined that balance and flow were the name of the game – so I banged through the film feeling good about things.

When the client came in to review after about 5min of playback they asked me to stop and said ‘I don’t get it, this is not nearly stylized enough, it lacks character’. After 30min of playing around it was clear that the client and I were not seeing eye to eye – while you might think this is a creative failure, in my opinion, this is a business failure.

Here’s why:

  • New client – never worked with them before. Furthermore, they had never been to a professional grading session.
  • I never asked for references of any type – I simply took their word on balance and flow – through after the first review they supplied several doc references that were indeed pretty stylized.
  • Due to the length of the piece, I never supplied in progress stills or a short example of a scene for their review prior to the session.
  • In the day or two that I was grading the piece, I got several emails from the client ‘checking in’.

So what does that all mean? Before I explain, let me mention one more thing that is 1000000% ridiculous.

If you’re a long time Mixing Light member you know that throughout the years there has been no one more vocal than me then about getting paperwork signed by clients prior to a project starting.  This agreement governs everything you do with a client.  Guess what?  For the first time in probably 4 years, I didn’t get this client to sign any paperwork.  All I had was a couple of emails that were vague at best in regards to the budget and commitment of the project.

Let’s unpack all that:

  • A new client with no paperwork is the riskiest type of client.  My failure to get paperwork signed, my failure to get references or dig deeper into their meaning of ‘balance and flow’ was inexcusable.
  • Red flags should have gone up when I got all the emails asking how it was going, furthermore my failure to provide them in progress stills/movies also contributed to the failure in the review session – if prior to that review they saw what was going on, we could have righted the ship.
  • Although I tried to recover the project the client had lost confidence. And ultimately went to another provider (ouch).  I billed the project (as well as supplied a reworked grade as an olive branch).  6 months went by and I didn’t hear a thing.  Because of the lack of an agreement in place, I really had no recourse to demand payment for my work.  After several follow-ups, I got a check for $300 in the mail and a Blu-Ray of the finished film (triple ouch).
Lessons Learned
  • How I should have handled this job should be obvious – no project happens without paperwork!
  • New clients need to be handled with kid gloves, provided in progress updates and viewable content. No exceptions.
  • Understand that shifty clients are the highest risk ones for having problems with your work and or paying for your work.

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