Building Innovation Teams
When building a team for innovative new storytelling technologies, like Virtual Reality, it’s very difficult to predict how your project will unfold. And therefore what team to you will need. The new normal in the production of technically innovative storytelling projects is chaos.
I build a bespoke team for every virtual reality project I create, some require traditional film skills, some involve haptics, and some others live entirely in a game engine. I have found it very interesting to see how different teams integrate and collaborate, how their skills are sometimes complimentary but other times create immediate conflict.
Compared to more traditional forms of storytelling, in my experience, digital teams are from Venus, while traditional teams are from Mars.
And the greatest challenge for the leader of these teams is to combine the best of both sides, and still create a tight-knit team that can tackle problems together.
Something that has never been done before.
The briefs I get for new projects usually all start with the same basic ask.
I remember standing on the back of a boat last summer, off the coast of Barcelona, filming a 360° drone shot passing 5 meters over the head of a man wearing a professional-level jetpack.
The words ‘never been done before’ are easy to utter, but a lot more difficult to turn into reality.
There are so many layers to getting a particular shot right, from safety to logistics, to the position of the sun relative to the camera. And therefore so many different, conflicting, technological challenges, that there is the tension that comes from a real gamble. The excitement of hoping for the best. And it is not really clear at any point that everything will fall into place.
Even the most experienced teams are not used to the feeling of not knowing what you’re doing.
We rightfully credit great teams for their hard-earned experience, and it’s easy to separate people by specific titles. But there is a more subtle influence that insecurity has on your team and your story — and those that handle it well are more difficult to recognise.
Insecurity creates chaos in the process. It denies your team the ability to draw upon all the previous times you did something… to know that it worked before. And where there is chaos there’s a lack of focus.
Chaos to me is the new normal.
It is important to tell yourself ‘it’s ok not to know’. Accepting that is the first step to embracing it. And taking steps to prevent the problems not doing so creates. Risk is only a problem if it is a surprise.
Experience is hard wired knowledge. That’s what traditional teams have a lot of. They have repetitively succeeded under great pressure to make something amazing. And they have all those experiences to draw upon.
But that kind of experience is not fluid. It’s burnt in through muscle memory. The key skill or habit with innovation projects is being flexible — and adjust course when the situation changes. This is what digital teams are excellent at doing.
It is easy to be optimistic when you are able to plan far ahead.
When you work in a predictable environment, you can create a hyper-efficient team where everyone has very specific interlinking responsibilities, and what is expected of you can be easily repeated. A good example is film making. A crew that is perfectly tuned. You all know exactly what is expected of each other, and there’s no need for any overlap.
Inflexibility can be the death of the project.
But with new way of creating —like Virtual Reality — you do not have such guarantees. The landscape of your project could change drastically, halfway through. And right up front, you’re unsure of what will work, and what won’t.
What you as a team are creating doesn’t change — but how you do so is never clear.
What I have noticed is that the inability to deal with a changing landscape — and the stress created by insecurity — in very experienced teams is exactly the cause for people’s inability to apply all of their hard-won experience to a newly emerging situation. People freeze up.
“A good compass not maps. Because if you plan your whole journey you’ll miss something important along the way.” — Joi Ito
For this reason it is important that you keep your enthusiasm and talent, but leave your experience at the door.
Learn, but don’t fail.
It is absolutely vital to prepare for every eventuality, and pay attention to every little detail. Don’t accept the modern mantra that start-up culture has to passionately embraced: that failure is good.
New and innovative technology is a very bad excuse not to do your homework.
The difference between learning by failure vs by research is to solve a challenge before it becomes a problem. And most of the time you can do this by listening to your team, balancing risks vs goals, and extrapolating based on what you already know.
More important than flexibility and research is curiosity. When working on innovative projects, it’s very hard to predict what knowledge will be the magic that will solve a problem. Or what person, with a unique, strange skill, might join your team and provide the missing link.
Your curiosity must be endless. Read everything, meet everyone. Expand your brain, and use that expanded knowledge base to challenge your teams tools and methods, as well as question your own decision constantly.
Working with new technologies like Virtual Reality to tell stories is a unique challenge. It’s even harder than usual to form a clear idea of what a project will need, what might go wrong, and how the story you’re trying to tell will ultimately come together and be lived, be experienced by the audience.
Your best bet with these types projects is to build on conventional production processes, but to remain fluid as you work. Shape shifting is a good analogy. Because you don’t know when you start how you’ll escape the room you’re building at the very end.
So accept the chaos, and compulsively plan and prepare yourself.
I am a virtual reality and interactive film maker, working at the intersection of storytelling and experiential technology.