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  • Writer's pictureAstutely Obtuse Staff Writer

Beyond Agile: Part 3 | Introducing the Theatre Model

A few years ago, I was introduced to a novel methodology called the Studio Model. It’s a true work of genius and is a fantastic place for any PMO to start when developing a new, or revamping an old methodology.


What we’ve done is take the studio method and created an offshoot, the theatre model. Why the change? Well, if we are being honest here, a significant portion of the Theatre Model utilizes the Studio Model as a foundation. The biggest change we have is a shift in mindset. You see, movies can do reshoots, ADR, special effects, and heavy editing to cover up mistakes. The theater is live, you are in front of your audience. Mistakes happen in real-time, and the embarrassment that befalls you as you stand there on stage before an audience full of people can tank the entire play.


Before we start, if you haven’t done so, please go and read the amazing article by Kurt Cagle, it is truly an insightful take on improving processes.


Where Do We Start?

Before we launch into the Theatre Model, I want to first talk about the change in mindset that is a must to achieve a workable solution.


Now, to be clear, I absolutely fucking hate the sons of bitches who say shit like, “You’re failing? It’s because you don’t have a winning mindset,” or “The road to success starts with your attitude.” Fuck these people. A big part of my PMP course (yes, you have to go through the 35-hour prep course even with an MPM), is the instructor saying “Shift your mindset.”


It’s almost always bullshit, and can be better stated by saying “Don’t be such an asshole all the time.”


Where we differ with our “change your fucking mindset,” is that we are not talking about individual mindsets, we are talking about organizational ones.


That’s right, if you aren’t willing to align your organizational mindset with the Theatre Model, you’re fucked. Why?


Well… that’s complicated. In theatre, unless every player owns their responsibility, and has a goal of putting on a successful show, the show will fail. That does not state that individual people can’t think that the lighting director is a fucking ponce, but as long as that individual does their part without negatively affecting the play, you’re fine.


The first thing to know is that your organization is going to have to be dedicated to putting out a successful product. They can disagree with certain things, but they need to still do their job as they are expected to.


Another complicating factor is that everyone has a part that they must play. You can’t have a sound engineer trying to choreograph your actors, regardless of how amazing Chadwick is at dancing, I mean, the dude is like the reincarnation of Rudolf Nureyev, Cary Grant, and Bob Fosse.


The second thing to know is that each person needs to fulfill their responsibilities. No, your client shouldn’t be directing the UI of your fancy new web app, that’s what you have a UI designer for. Your analytics manager shouldn’t be dictating how the relational tables are built, your lead designer shouldn’t be dictating how business requirements are gathered. Get it?


Further complicating the need to shift mindset, is the need to be fully dedicated to planning, or as we’ll call it, pre-production and production planning. If you have an available cast of five, you’re not going to be able to put on The Crucible (primary cast of about 20, plus background/extras).


Projects are built within constraints, and you need to know those constraints. The easiest way to know what can and can’t be done is to have honest discussions early on. A colleague of mine worked as a stage manager for a regional theatre out of South Carolina, where the director wanted to do The Color Purple, however, the entire cast was white, and that was the only actors he had access to. He asked the stage manager if he thought it would be ok if he just had the actors in blackface, but not like in the Al Jolson racist way.



Look, if you can’t find a cast of actors that fit the roles for whatever reason, and it doesn’t make sense story-wise for the actors you have, then no… you can’t perform that play. That’s the nature of it. Likewise, if you don’t have the resources, technological know-how, or support for the project you want, regardless of how desperately you want to do it, you can’t… that’s just the nature of it. Sorry. Put it in the portfolio as a potential project for later, when you can do the work, but don’t just railroad it through the process because it’s a passion project.


With that, I would stress, an individual can get as pissy as they fucking want. They can bitch and moan about their passion project got back-burnered because it isn’t feasible all they want. I’m not going to stop them… as long as they are still fulfilling their role without dragging down others in the production. This isn’t about policing an individual's mindset, it’s about putting the organization into the right mindset.



How We Came Up With Our Theatre Model

It all started with a fellow classmate asking if I had read the “Beyond Agile” article that introduced the Studio Model (please go read it, it is truly amazing). Next, we talked with other project professionals to get their take on it, gathered input, complaints, cried, drank, tossed around some cabers, broke for lunch, drank some more, and then compiled everyone’s insight. I then took this and paired it with insight that I had gained from project teams pre-Agile. Most notably, programmers from Sierra Games, and insight gathered from Ken and Roberta Williams about their process of building some of the most beloved games of many 80s/90s kids.


I also relied heavily on my time working in Hollywood as a script doctor and as a director of a community theatre group.


The model has since been reworked and revised many times over the past year. Without the incredible insight from those around us, we couldn’t have fine-tuned this enough that we could be presenting it, so know that this isn’t just a few people screaming into the void that their process sucks and we have a better solution. It is the culmination of a lot of voices all pushing for a common goal.


What is the Theatre Model

We outline seven specific phases of the process, each dealing with aspects of the project that will have a dramatic effect on work happening downstream.

One contributor to this model, Kevin Giaccaro, said he calls this a snowball system. That is, as long as you control it, the snowball can grow but not be dangerous. It’s when the snowball starts rolling down a steep hill that things go wrong.



To prevent the out-of-control snowball, we deal with things that can be dealt with early, and only bring in key players when we are ready for them. You don’t need to bring in your actors before you’ve even selected a play.


Our seven phases are such:

  • Pre-Production

  • Production Planning

  • Rehearsals

  • Tech Week

  • Press Night

  • Opening Night

  • Striking the Set

Pre-Production

The key to understanding pre-production is to know that it has nothing to do with the actual production… well, not in the way you would think. A large part of the pre-production work you do in theatre is related to the play selection process. For your project team, this will entail portfolio management.


At a previous company, they used a "dump everything in Trello" type of project portfolio. Anyone and everyone could submit a project request, and it went into a big board with multiple swimlanes. These were visible to everyone on the project team, and it was a disaster. It was difficult to read, and frequently work would be accidentally started on because no one knew what was prioritized and what wasn’t.


When the projects were prioritized, they would get lost in the shuffle, and it might get worked, it might not, and what’s worse, no one knew the difference until a couple of weeks passed. It didn’t work. It was a crapshoot as to what would get prioritized, and frequently it went to the loudest most obnoxious mother fuckers in the organization.


Instead, the portfolio should be broken down and managed by an individual that can walk through the requests and prioritize everything into a hierarchal chart of what is most important to what is bullshit. The stuff that’s prioritized, and only the things that are prioritized, get passed off to the project team. Your stagehands don’t need to know that you’re thinking of doing Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia next season, only that you are doing an evening with David Mamet for this show.


And just like doing an “evening of…” show, you need to have knowledge of how things might interact (an evening of… show typically takes excerpts from the playwright’s shows, scenes they’ve written, or a collection of one-act plays they’ve done). When you are managing your portfolio, you need to lump works together. If you have a handful of small requests surrounding the update of components within the same software, you should have those all go simultaneously. The work is similar enough, and small enough that it could, and should be done together.


Production Planning

Here is where you start dealing with discovering what resources are needed, what teams should be brought in, the where and when, scheduling, and exploring vendors and suppliers. This is where all of your initial planning regarding the project actually happens.


Rehearsals

It’s where the magic happens, baby! The rehearsal process is detailed, has specific -- time-sensitive goals, and is where the bulk of your project time is spent.


Tech-Week

You’ve finished rehearsals, and the work for the project is done, now it’s time to put everything together and see how it works. This is done before anyone outside of the production sees it. It’s the last step before bringing in outsiders. Here is where your QA team can shine.


Press-Night

This is something that, surprisingly, isn’t done on a lot in internal teams, but seems to be more popular with larger teams that incorporate SaaS solutions. Press night, also called beta testing, or a test and adjust period, is where you have a small dedicated team utilize your product to work out anything that might have been missed leading up to going live. Ideally, it’s polished and ready to go, but sometimes shit happens.


Opening Night

This is when shit goes live! It’s over!... it’s over, right? RIGHT!

Fuck no! It’s just starting. Just like in the theatre, you have nightly recaps and notes with your actors. The first weeks of a product release can be painful, and you’ll need to be diligent to respond to anything that happens.


Striking the Set

Also called project closeout. It’s the handoff of all deliverables and documentation related to the project. It takes many different forms and is called different things depending on your team. It’s when you are finally officially done with the project. In the theatre striking a set means taking the set down. It’s typically a controlled process that involves systematically removing props and set dressing in a way that these items can be reused later, sold off, or returned to the owner of the item. In the same way, your closeout process needs to be controlled and done in a systematic way to ensure the smoothest of transitions.


Over the next few weeks, we will go into a lot more detail on each of these phases. We will cover the specifics you need to be successful in each step and what to look out for.

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