Building Universes: Marvel and Portfolio Management
At the moment I’m working within a large organisation with untold complexity, initiatives for huge change with products and services used by millions. Whilst it is humbling to work on projects that support so many people, at times it can be difficult. To support such large organisations large teams are required to build, maintain and support projects, with that comes the difficulties of managing large teams and people management in general.
With so many moving parts how can we make sure that they all work together and pull towards the same vision? Beyond that, should we really be asking if different areas need to work together at all? We need to question our assumptions and allow individual teams to create foster innovation, but how can we do that without breaking everything? Let’s look at a masterful approach of managing portfolios and teams: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. First, some context, to Wikipedia!
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is an American media franchise and shared universe that is centered on a series of superhero films, independently produced by Marvel Studios and based on characters that appear in American comic books published by Marvel Comics. The franchise has expanded to include comic books, short films, television series, and digital series. The shared universe, much like the original Marvel Universe in comic books, was established by crossing over common plot elements, settings, cast, and characters.
Yep, for over 10 years now Marvel has been killing it with their films, they’re making billions by blending characters together in stories over time. It may appear effortless for them just cranking out films and tv series on well established characters and stories from decades of comics but in reality it only works due to vision and hardwork. So let’s take a peek at what makes a Marvel film a Marvel Cinematic Universe film? Why do their films work whilst there have been false starts from Sony, Fox and DC? Vision, shared principles and empowering teams.
Cast your mind back to 2008, ‘Dubya’ was still in the White House, Christian Bale was still Batman and people were only just starting to get tired of The X Factor. High-profile risk Robert Downey Jr. was starring as Tony Stark in Iron-Man, a relatively B-list superhero name who had an animated series at some point that was run on BBC 2 on a Saturday morning to counter Spider-man and X-Men. The film came out of nowhere (well as nowhere as can be with a million dollar marketing arm behind it) and was incredibly well received by fans and critics alike. It was fun, witty and people cared about the characters, it was the perfect accompaniment to the dark and grounded The Dark Knight. Whilst fans were happy with it, it was the last 90 seconds that sent the burgeoning nerd culture into a frenzy.
Reportedly just a throwaway cut-in at the end, Samuel L. Jackson shows up and suggests that he’s putting a team together. Fans who had enjoyed the film were excited they would see more and potentially other Marvel characters, of course superhero films were not uncommon, but to see them team up was new. The closest we had to this on the big screen so far were the X-Men who were there own self-contained little universe of thesps and Hugh Jackman. Whilst only a tease it created a buzz, people were excited and wanted to see more. Marvel had just released their proof of concept, and the market wanted more.
The team at Marvel slowly developed a roadmap which they would outline in phases, releasing films which would culminate in large ‘event films’ which would payoff threads from the solo films. Whilst this shared vision was not initially the plan of all involved in the first Iron Man film, there were some who were hopeful. After converting more to the cause, including fans as well as those who saw the financial potential, Marvel set out its stall.
I make no apologies to say that I am a fan of a thematic roadmap, having seen companies and teams become burned by the targets they pull out of nowhere, upset and disappoint customers, frustrate stakeholders and burn goodwill, feature dated roadmaps in stone for years ahead do not work.
I believe offering solid direction and intention to stakeholders, sharing early and often can set expectations and influence projects. Stakeholders can flock to what they want to see and share feedback, but at no point would they face a nasty surprise. We as product teams can seek early feedback on our intent, ensure we’re going down the right path with what we plan to build and not overpromise.
Teams of teams should take heed on Marvel’s approach, there are steers from the top as well as empowerment from individual teams, but crucially the left hand always knows what the right one is doing because it has clearly shared what it plans to do, something that doesn’t often happen in large organisations.
Vision should be shared with everyone internally and externally.
Marvel has a noticeable aesthetic, they draw heavily from the original source material, but the worlds the characters inhabit are similar to our own. Much like someone can look at a Tim Burton film, (just look at his gorgeous imagining of Gotham in his two Batman films) and immediately know he’s been involved, Marvel uses a similar aesthetic in its superhero films.
Visually striking, whimsical, not too grounded, but serious enough for emotional impact. This style is easily accessible and recognisable. Compare it to say Zack Snyder’s DC films, where everything had to be gritty, dark and grimy, whilst Snyder is an auteur, his tastes can be somewhat off-putting to a wider audience. This is not to say that Batman vs Superman would have been a good film if it just had better lighting, it wouldn’t.
What we can take from Marvel’s approach to its portfolios of property however is that across all our products we need to maintain a visual language which unites them. Take the Gov.uk aesthetic, simple, bold, flat, limited colour usage. When you visit a new Gov.uk site you know you’re visiting one site of many. The same can be said for Google’s range of products, a defined colour palette and definite design choices from a shared library of resources. This is not to say that teams within organisations can’t diverge from the core ‘look and feel’ from the wider organisation, but it must be traced back. For example take the 70s inspired Captain America: The Winter Soldier and directly contrast it to the trippy, visually exciting Doctor Strange, same ‘universe’, different looking films, but they share a core DNA which makes their audience feel comfortable.
We have design languages, we have shared libraries, speak to your users, test with them what works, build, iterate and share.
Something that Marvel thrives at (albeit, there have been a few hiccups) is empowering their teams to make decisions. They hire people who can work within their framework and put their own spin on it, making products which serve many more audiences. Case in point - Taika Waititi and James Gunn.
The director behind sublime vampire mockumentary What we do in the Shadows was handed an existing franchise and make it his own. The man behind modern exploitation films and the live action Scooby Doo films made audiences care about a talking tree and a CGI raccoon. Whilst these were Marvel films, they were definitely products of their creators, teams of like minded individuals working within a loose framework. Those with the final say, for the sake of this, let’s call them the C-Level decided to empower those teams to make their own decisions.
Not only did this create strong teams, it created more diverse and better products. We need to give teams some power to make and build, otherwise we end up with a production line of the same thing. Whilst this may be good for some, many audiences will tire and seek new things, see The X-Factor.
Empower teams to be creative, allow them to push against constraints without breaking them, for example you’re not going to install a button for pizza delivery on an NHS website… but you may encourage them to find out how to serve the core needs of users in different ways.
Successful products are made by empowered teams, in turn empowered teams will stay together and build more products!
As an aside, never tell an employee their empowered if you’re not actually empowering them, there is nothing more soul-destroying.
Whilst Marvel does seem to have a flexible formula working, it doesn’t always get it right. There are sometimes products which are letdowns, I’m looking directly at you Thor 2, or there could those who don’t match with culture and constraints.
When Edgar Wright developed Ant-Man from a dream to a feature starring Paul Rudd it was disheartening to see him walk away before filming. Many fans claimed they would disown Marvel, they did not. Some were worried that the Marvel was over and had become too corporate and Disney-fied, those fears are as yet unfounded.
Wright went on to success away from the organisation, others in the organisation including Joss Whedon shared the same gripes and frustration about the constraints and walked away soon after. Whilst Whedon was arguably the man who pulled off the unthinkable in creating a good superhero team up film, he was expendable, leaving the company following his contractual commitments.
What we learn from this is that teams have to iterate and whilst the work of individuals is invaluable, the strength lies within the team and organisation itself. Apple is still thriving despite no visionary Jobs, but it has iterated. Our teams must iterate and change to the market also, a fantastic system is only working if it delivers value.
So here we are dear reader, Marvel and portfolio management, juggling thousands of jobs and billions of dollars, what can we extract further?
Marvel has open and honest communication with internal and external stakeholders, organisations should strive for this too
Iterate teams, projects and deliverables
Share a universe - they may not all look the same but products should be related
Seek feedback, deliver value
Be bold - *snaps fingers*