Rise Phoenix

Rise, Phoenix

Creating the world’s largest television show in just 10 sprints

Picture this: You are put in charge of a project without a clearly defined budget. Without an organisation. Without a clear scope, but with a non-negotiable deadline in exactly eleven months.

Rise Phoenix

To some people, this might sound like a dream scenario. To most people, this would probably be the most terrifying project in the world.

Nevertheless, each year, this is the reality for the nationally appointed executive producer of the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC). This is the story of the 2013 victory, and the 2014 Eurovision Contest held in Denmark.

Rise Phoenix

When Emmelie de Forest won the contest in Malmö in 2013 barefooted and accompanied by a catchy flute, everyone in Denmark celebrated, and as a result of the victory, the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR) were to perform the next ESC TV-shows. A week after the Malmö victory, five people, headed by the newly appointed Danish executive producer, gathered in DR. They knew that they had a huge “once in a lifetime” task in front of them.

The “facts”

However, at this point, as is the case with most projects, a few things were actually clear. The team knew that the main objective would be three television shows with live audiences: two semi-finals and one great final show to be broadcasted in May 2014. Furthermore, they could expect more than 150,000 tourists and delegates from roughly 35 European countries staying in Denmark for more than two weeks, and 1,500 journalists from all over the world covering the whole lot.

In addition, they knew that they would probably have some 500 or more people working directly for them as well as about 950 volunteers, making it all happen in less than 11 months’ time from the meeting. The project ahead would without a doubt push the team members to their limits. Also, an event like this activates a large, undefined field of very influential stakeholders with many different agendas and “stakes”. Ultimately, the team’s performance would be judged by the number of viewers (expected to be around 170 million) and their opinions of the final show.

Going forward

Back to the first meeting of the newly appointed project team in DR. They had only a frame for the budget, no organisation, no idea of how the shows should be. What they did have was a whole lot of stakeholders to satisfy, namely the very dedicated ESC fan group, the “owner of the Eurovision concept” – the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and a lot of politicians who, somewhere down the line, were going to finance large parts of the project and had specific preferences on many topics. Choosing which city should host the event would be one of those topics.

David Barnekow Erichsen
David Barnekow Erichsen
+45 3085 8014

What to do when you basically do not know what to do

The essence of the above described situation is not so different from the situation that many project managers find themselves in after having been appointed the leader of a new project. In this case, the team knew that they would have to make critical decisions fast, which would severely impact the success of the show. A selected few:

  • Choose a host city, accommodating 150,000 people for more than two weeks and with a suitable venue for the TV shows – and having the “marketing value” worth broadcasting to the world.
  • Develop a concept that would raise the ESC shows to new standards and amaze the general public.
  • Design the TV stage and the venue to accommodate the ambitions of the show.
  • Select the TV hosts who would be the faces of the shows to the rest of the world.
  • Decide on how many people should preferably attend the live shows.
  • Make a bullet-proof budget for the whole lot.
  • Choose the right people to make it all happen

The first thing to do in unkown territory

Standing in front of such a massive “unknown”, we started on three things in parallel – and made them all equally important.

  1. Creating the “master plan” – an analogue visual board, organised tracks corresponding to the known main deliverables that constitute the end goal being “an amazing world-class TV show”.
  2. Creating the management “infrastructure” for the core leadership group. Defining how to govern such a massive, complex assignment in a clear, scalable way to ensure clear roles and responsibilities, documented decisions, chain of command with the right buy-in from the various stakeholders and, at the same time, maintaining an engaged and aligned team.
  3. Started on the first “burning issue” of selecting a host city – in a way that would ensure a fair process and would minimise the potential critique from stakeholders.

Creating a world-class television show in 10 sprints

When you build a project plan, three things stand out as imperative factors for success. Firstly, the plan must establish a simple overview of the project from A-Z. Secondly, it must encourage involvement and create energy, which is why the Excel sheet made by the “lone wolf” seldom works out well. Finally, the plan must be broken down into manageable chunks for each individual to know what he must do in the immediate future and how to work around it.

In the ESC project, we established ten sprints throughout the project with a duration of four weeks. Every sprint had clear deliverables and was synchronised across the various tracks (show, production, host city, digital media, communication) in the project. The working flow, the takt, was also synchronised with stand-up meetings across the project’s main visual board and stand-up meetings in the various tracks several times throughout the week. This ensures a constant and almost even pressure to deliver, each week, over the 11 months. Naturally, during the last 5 – 6 weeks, the pressure escalates, but due to the previous nine sprints, it is manageable.

If you cannot hide it - show it

Whether you work with a project of building a small garage or a TV show with a budget close to DKK 200 million, the task is still to simplify the complexity of the project. Working with Post-its on visual sprint boards to ensure transparency and highlighting areas that need attention leaves nothing to hide. This approach enabled the team to demonstrate internally and externally that they were on top of the project and, hence, encouraged people around the project to “JoinUs” in making it happen.

It allowed the core team and the executive director to constantly be aware of “red” dots alias the “unfinished” business that needs attention. A board with red dots will not be forgotten, and they do not come back and bite you – they are right in your face. Despite the team being aligned internally, it still turned out to be very difficult to get people outside the “project’s engine” to buy into the project and “trust” that it moved in the right direction. This leaves us to the analogy of showing the tiger.

Put the tiger in the room

If you were to sell the idea of a new zoo to a board of financial investors using only PowerPoint slides, you might risk comments, such as “there is no thrill in a zoo”, “isn’t a zoo very old-fashioned, not able to compete with modern entertainment standards” or something similar. If you brought a live tiger with you into the boardroom, they might still think that a zoo is old-fashioned, but they would certainly not talk about lack of thrills. Sometimes, you physically need to “put the tiger in the room” to get people to “feel” the thrill of an idea.

When ESC’s creative masterminds were deepdiving into the ideation phase of concept development, they grew more and more frustrated. They felt that their best ideas were shot dead by the executive management. The management team countered the frustration with their own frustration about the ideas presented being unrealistically expensive, and they were not convinced. After talking about the “approval process”, it was clear that the creative team, i.e. the ones who were passionate about the idea, did not have direct access to the executive decision makers. They handed over the ideas. As a consequence, the executive management could not “feel” the essence of the visions being put forward and, hence, shot them down as a safeguard mechanism. They could not feel the magic of the creative team and the creative did not get a good feel of the financial constraints. This was obviously counterproductive and demotivating for both sides of the table.

Join Us

Therefore, by simply changing the setting and bringing the executive management to the creative team to let them express their dreams, magic happened, when the executives could live the visions and feel the ideas of the creative team. Suddenly, they were all working together towards the grand vision of the biggest ESC ever made and fully living the slogan of the show – JoinUs. Essentially, they brought the tiger to the executives.

Was it all worth it?

On 10 May 2014 at 23:48, Conchita Wurst from Austria entered the stage as the winner of the Eurovision Song Contest 2014. The exploding confetti canons of euphoria from the fans lifted the roof off the old B&W shipbuilding yard, which formed the venue of the show. People celebrated – especially the ESC core team. Many battles had been fought with the higher purpose of creating a mindblowing TV show that would set the standards for the future.

Working in sprints with a synchronised takt across the project and with an effective decision-making infrastructure, the team members were enabled to align themselves and the project’s deliverables towards the multitude of stakeholders having an opinion of the show.

Expecting “only” 170 million viewers was a miscalculation. The actual figure turned out to be an astounding 192 million viewers, which is an all-time record, making the ESC amongst one of the biggest television shows in the world. A great indicator for success enabled by a dedicated team who kept on believing in the project.

This team allowed a Phoenix to rise.