The Arc of a Project

Projects have their own flow and arc, and one must complete several of them before the process comes together in one's head. I'm mostly thinking about

Projects have their own flow and arc, and one must complete several of them before the process comes together in one's head. I'm mostly thinking about large projects with a bit of sprawl, such as films, albums, games, and sound design in product development, rather than projects with short turnarounds or cycles, such as TV shows and magazines. While each project has unique aspects, more often than not they all follow a familiar pattern.

The first part of a typical project is assessment and preparation. This is when I tend to spend time just mulling over a project and making notes. I start getting my head around the project's scope, purpose, and priorities; formulate my initial viewpoint of the task; and consider my methods for accomplishing it. While exciting, this part of the process can also involve acquiring tools and learning how to use them, as well as devising some form of asset management. The latter might be as basic as making a folder to hold all files related to the project or as involved as creating an entire folder structure, scripts, automation, templates, and tracking databases. I also consider how to best handle tasks that will be repeated constantly, such as batch-file format conversion.

It takes more time than I'd like for all of this orientation and preparation, and I often start feeling panicky near the end of this phase because I haven't produced anything yet. In fact, this nervousness is a primary factor in ending the preparatory phase. But ideally, the prep phase is Zen in nature: I spend a long time laying out and arranging tools and materials just so, so that the actual execution of the job can be very rapid. It doesn't always pan out that way, but that's the notion.

The next phase is transitional. I begin production, but things go excruciatingly slowly because I'm just starting to put my preparation into practice for the first time, and I have to work out the kinks. I establish working methods and find a rhythm for doing the job. This phase can go on longer than I'd like, too, but because I'm turning out content, I rarely get as nervous as I do near the end of the prep phase. Still, it can be nerve-racking from the standpoint that I am, at this point, perhaps a third of the way into the project's schedule and don't yet have enough completed work to demonstrate that things are moving along.

When all goes well, I reach the heavy-production phase before the client gets the jitters. Just when their faith is wearing thin, I come through and deliver something that reassures them — both in terms of showing that things are on schedule and proving that the quality of the work is suitable.

Then I get to the “shoveling” portion of the program, where I've found the rhythm. I've put tools and systems in place, and I can create the majority of the project. I get such a head of steam going that I resent taking any substantial amount of time to document what I'm doing and to concoct communications to the client. But I've learned that I must do those things nonetheless.

Somewhere along the way come the inevitable changes in direction from the client, a few setbacks of varying severity, and some massively productive days. Hopefully, I can get some invoicing done and, finally, make a complete draft of most if not all of the material.

The last phase is tweaking and reworking, accommodating late requests, and getting sign-offs on final versions. Then it's all done! The project's completion hardly seems real. I think I'm suddenly going to get a chunk of my life back, although, as we all know, nature abhors spare bandwidth. With luck, there's at least a short recovery period before the next project kicks off in earnest.

Grasping this rhythm is most useful. Having an awareness of project arcs and a good feel for riding them is a skill that marks a professional. Of course, it is also the mark of a professional to be able to ride the arc when it is nothing at all like this.