This is stonewalling at its best. Image © Jain Lemos.

Thinking about organizing systems for maximum efficiency is today’s topic in my blog series, The Ultimate Guide to Producing Documentary Books. Beyond the arrangement of the book parts, your systems thinking is what defines you as a publisher. I’m talking about your attitudes and behavior, the good, bad and ugly.

Early in my career I was given the advice: “Never handle the same piece of paper twice.” It’s a practice that both haunts me and serves me well. I remember one day in the early 90s, I was eagerly anticipating my appointment to meet with an arts editor at The New York Times. Upon entering her small office area, I was shocked at what a disaster it was! She greeted me warmly though I felt she had forgotten our date. Frantically looking around she scrambled to find me a place to sit. She started to clear off the seat of a guest chair, grabbing a bundle of FedEx envelopes, her coat, a sweater, two umbrellas, a bulging knapsack, Styrofoam containers and a stack of file folders. I jumped in to help her, trying to minimize the bulk of my own coat and portfolio case. With our arms full we looked around for a place to put everything.

On the floor there was a smaller stack of stuff in one corner and seeing as it wasn’t too tall… we dropped our loads. Her desk was covered with piles of papers, books, slide sheets and legal pads. I couldn’t see how she accomplished anything. But she was at the top of her field. She was Ivy-league educated and degree decorated. She was very accomplished and had been at this job for decades. I thought she was so creative and interesting but I sat on my hands during our meeting to thwart my compulsion to straighten.

For the next few weeks, I consciously attempted to mess up my office. But soon enough I relapsed. To this day, I can’t function in clutter. Some people do and whatever your system is, as long as the mission is accomplished, fine. However, let’s talk about the mission. Book publishing is entirely deadline driven. It is like a script with a time lock plot where tension builds as the clock runs out. Publishers need to anticipate the tension points that happen during each stage of production. If systems aren’t running smoothly then pressure builds throughout your team, often resulting in all types of explosions.

Here is the key: I know I can produce a book, a film, an annual report or a traveling exhibition using only a telephone. Other people I hire can generate documents and files using their trade tools and technology. What I need to do is manage all these pieces effectively and efficiently. With this concept in mind, I make better decisions on what absolutely needs to be done by me. To be clear, I wouldn’t want to work without a computer and the latest software! But if my system thinking is solid enough, I don’t have to be chained to technology.

Far more critical is the integrity and organization of your system of leadership. This is evidenced in how you communicate and solve problems. It’s also about the perception you leave behind. If you do your best work surrounded by chaos then make sure it never impacts anyone else you encounter, most of all yourself. Think about creating an atmosphere where you don’t need to apologize for things under your control; not for your messy office, not for your reasons for running behind schedule and not for NOT being able to find what you need because it’s at the bottom of a pile. Because when you are concentrating too much on what you are dealing with in your personal world, you can’t be cognizant of the other intersecting systems that are in place and happening all around you.

Business and personal relationships often intersect and I’ve learned that if one area is messy so is the other. Dr. Steven Stosny writes on cleaning up emotional pollution and how to ruin a perfectly good relationship for Psychology Today. Scheduling Production comes next in the series. Have a great weekend!

Producing Documentary Books: Developing a Budget
Producing Documentary Books: Scheduling Production