Digital stewards and the need for strategic producers

I've faced my fair share of surprises as a producer; projects being cancelled abruptly, endless requests for revisions, projects stalled due to disagreements on deliverables. I've even had my work go unpublished by clients - after the full cost had already been invested. In these situations, everyone ends up equally frustrated. But I've come to realise that the key to overcoming these challenges is understanding the context beyond our project.

Whenever I start working with a new client, I always make a point to ask questions about their business, their vision five years from now, the team's priorities etc… While these questions might not seem directly related to the project at hand, they help to better understand the work we need to do, the stakeholders involved, and gather additional context that might prove useful later (if only to justify creative decisions as strategically sound in relation to the broader context).

Understanding context layers

When I write "strategic work", I'm referring to the importance of understanding the various layers of context on any given project. Our productions are very niche and expensive, they're generally subject to scrutiny from multiple layers of context.

Tom Critchlow describes these context layers and catastrophic events in his book, the Strategic Independent:

"There’s a certain kind of experience that I want to describe where everything goes to shit. Certain events in business collapse the environment. For example - let’s focus on the context model for app design, and assume that the Growth objectives are “in crisis” - this could be missing targets, people change, overspend, change in marketing strategy etc...

These catastrophic events collapse the environment and cascade downwards. Every circle inside gets ignored, paused, cancelled, changed, redefined. These events are felt like system-shock for anyone operating in these lower circles. But I think it’s way easier to instead always be searching upwards for more context awareness - i.e. working strategically. This helps you ride out those catastrophic events with more planning, awareness and foresight."

Since reading this a few years ago I've tried to be more strategic, mapping out the circles of context that influence the project. This understanding allows me to anticipate and adapt, ultimately mitigating a lot of the unpleasant situations described above and delivering work that aligns with the client's objectives.

In the increasingly dynamic world of digital, the role of the producer is not just to manage projects but to deliver meaningful results to our clients, stay on track despite the inevitable surprises and help create an environment where innovation is possible. This requires a shift in focus from traditional project management to a more strategic and adaptive approach. I believe producers must embrace strategic thinking and stewardship as core aspects of their role.

Embracing the responsibility of stewardship

At the heart of this approach lies the concept of stewardship, which refers to strategic planning on behalf of both clients and teams. The Helsinki Design Lab defines stewardship as a form of agile leadership that acknowledges the inevitability of change and embraces adaptability over strict adherence to a predetermined plan:

It is common these days for one group to be involved in analysis of a problem and designing the solution (consultants) while a different group executes these ideas (contractors). But this disconnects an essential feedback loop.

What we describe also goes well beyond "facilitation," which suggests that others do the important work. Stewardship shapes the course of innovation; it is not a neutral role. Think of stewardship as a form of leadership. One that acknowledges things will change along the way for better or for worse, therefore demanding agility over adherence to a predetermined plan. Many individuals who work in alliances or collaborative endeavors act as stewards almost naturally. If you are used to continually calibrating the goals of a project with the constraints of your context, you are practicing stewardship. If you maintain a constant state of opportunism and a willingness to pivot when progress on the current path is diminishing, you're a natural steward.

Producers, by the nature of their role, possess the qualities of stewardship. We're uniquely positioned to guide and shape the course of innovation in a project. By understanding and embracing the responsibility of stewardship, we can lead with more humility and confidence, proactively seeking to challenge our clients and articulate these parameters to the team. It's also much more interesting to calibrate project goals to align with the constraints and opportunities of each client's unique context.

Expanding our horizons with adjacent context

Another essential skill for producers is the ability to explore adjacent context. This involves thinking even more broadly about an industry or issue, looking for unconventional or surprising analogies and insights that can bring new information that may not be apparent to our clients. This knowledge positions us as the experts, the stewards who intend to deliver the most value from their investment. Trust and understanding are fostered and the workflow becomes more effective.

By embracing strategic thinking and adjacent context exploration, we can evolve the definition of the producer role to continue differentiating it from traditional project management to instead embrace a responsibility of stewardship.

This shift also empowers us to drive innovation, inspire teams, and create meaningful work that helps our clients. Elevating the entire process and paving the way for a fun collaboration.