Star Wars: Episode 9, The Rise of Skywalker put me in a catatonic funk for months. The ocean stopped being blue, music no longer moved me, and cheeseburgers across the land all lost their comforting properties. It’s like that feeling you have when you launch a big project you dedicated years of your life to and it lands with a thud. But worse because Star Wars ultimately means more to me. (Sorry, colleagues.)
Despite rumors of a rushed production, abandoned visions of the movie, and other simplistic explanations for a movie gone wrong, my years in the corporate world had me thinking about it from a different angle. As someone who has run, or been a key member of, massive projects and strategic initiatives, I slowly keyed on some decisions that formed the new Star Wars sequel trilogy that needed another look.
Since nobody at Disney or Lucasfilm asked me, I’ll share these 3 project management lessons with you instead.
Don’t disregard the work of your predecessors
There’s a natural instinct when you step into a new job, or takeover a project, to cast aside what was done before and start fresh. When JJ Abrams was tasked to create the final chapter of the Sequel Trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker, he was left with several thematic, character, and plot threads to resolve from the previous movie, The Last Jedi, and The Force Awakens, which Abrams made to kick off the trilogy. There were are also overarching themes in Star Wars as a whole that required a final statement. Stories have a momentum and telling a good story requires you to go where it needs to go rather than where you want it to go. Instead, characters in The Rise of Skywalker did not feature any growth from previous movies; the movie featured cameos and references that meant more to the audience than the characters in the story; and there were plot points that came from nowhere and paid off nothing to make a movie felt apart from a greater whole. Breaking those down is a topic for another time (or not) but it made me feel like I had wasted the time I had invested in the characters and story.
Another example is how the entire Sequel Trilogy project started with Disney deciding to disregard George Lucas’ treatment for the new trilogy and start from scratch for reasons I can only speculate. Upon hearing the new story being developed, Bob Iger wrote in his recent book that Lucas felt, “betrayed” and that they had, “gotten off to an unnecessarily rocky start.”
You have to be smarter than that when taking over an existing initiative. You might not have liked the person who preceded you or some of the parts of the plan that were put into action. You still have to be objective and know when it’s better to finish a story than blow it up and make something of your own; especially if you don’t fully understand something yet. You have to know when you’re not as smart as you think you are.
Customers (and fans) don’t know what they want
A common criticism of The Force Awakens is that it is too derivative of Star Wars: Episode 4, A New Hope, and that it played it safe by revisiting beloved sets and characters. Then The Last Jedi came and those who didn’t like it said it didn’t feel like the other movies, the characters (mostly Luke Skywalker) didn’t behave as they wanted, and legacy characters, like Lando, could’ve been used instead of new characters. Rian Johnson had already completed the screenplay for The Last Jedi before The Force Awakens was released but you can see how the powers at Disney might’ve let fan noise affect their decision-making concerning The Rise of Skywalker to disappointing affect. They have denied that fan feedback on The Last Jedi had any impact on the movie but the result says otherwise.
Listening to customers and making them happy is important. It should be central to everything you do. But don’t confuse that with believing customers always know what they want. You, as the project manager or owner of a strategy, have to keep your eye on the longterm vision and not let the emotions of the moment take you off course. Trust your vision–which should be based on some kind of insight, definitely–to deliver what they want by the end even if that means some short-term pain.
Being right isn’t enough when making transformational changes
Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy should get a lot of credit for having the courage to make significant changes, even late into productions, in service of making the best movie possible. These decisions paid off with Rogue One, where Tony Gilroy was brought in to do reshoots and rewrites, and the results were more mixed with Solo, where directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were replaced by Ron Howard who reshot much of the movie. Then she and writer/director Colin Trevorrow, who had already written a draft of the Episode 9 screenplay with his writing partner and was deep in development, mutually decided to part ways before Abrams was rehired. We might never know the reasons but change of any kind is an anxiety-inducing event and I was anxious. There was an appearance of disorganization and lack of commitment to a stated vision that colored my view of the movies before I saw a second of footage. I can’t imagine how the people who actually worked on these projects felt.
Kathleen Kennedy is an accomplished executive and she doesn’t need to explain herself to fans like me but it reminded me that big decisions that change the status quo are made all of the time. People fear their jobs could be eliminated, or maybe they don’t believe in your vision, and maybe they just want to protect their status quo at all costs. Change management for your internal and external audiences requires more than simply being right and having facts on your side.
Getting anything accomplished in a complex organization filled with people who have different beliefs, backgrounds, and objectives is always a small miracle. You have to meet people where they are and listen to them. Understand their challenges and fears and help them overcome them if you can. Approach your audience with empathy, honesty, and prove yourself to be a good faith partner. Everyone likes to feel like they’re part of the solution. Anything else will damage your ability to lead as you battle a toxic mix of rumors, disengaged colleagues, and customers who lose faith.
Making movies is hard. Making new movies in a franchise with a passionate fanbase that have decades of expectations is even harder. I’m not sure Disney ever had the right answer to why they wanted to make a new trilogy and they didn’t fully trust Lucas’ reasons (and enduring vision) for making the movies at all. Maybe I expected too much but it reminded me that corporate decisions have to be made with the heart of an artist as much as the cold calculations of business.
I’d like to think George Lucas would agree with that.
Keep these in mind next time someone hands you the keys to the future.