The Fyre festival was supposed to be a luxury music festival starring models and social media “influencers” on Pablo Escobar’s island in the Exumas. Instead, festival goers arrived to chaos – the luxury villas were emergency shelter tents, the gourmet meal was cheese slices on bread and the evening parties were mobs of manic young American tourists destroying their own camp in the panicky darkness. It was a gong show. Don’t believe us? Watch this fantastic Netflix documentary or read this article in the New York Times. After consuming a number of post-mortems and experiencing my share of schadenfreude, I put on my learning hat and realized that the Fyre festival offers us all sorts of professional lessons. Here are four project management lessons from the Fyre festival.
Marketing ≠ operations
Everyone from Ja-Rule to the people who bought tickets to the Fyre Festival seemed to agree on one thing – the marketing of the festival was brilliant. Focusing on Millenials and harnessing the power of social media “influencers”, Fyre organizers were able to conjure up quite the epic expectations. Come to this music festival and be surrounded by models and rock starts (cue Ja-Rule rapping) and white sandy beaches and parties until it was time to head home to your yacht by jet ski… like a boss. The problem was, great marketing or communications is nothing if it isn’t coupled with great operations. Weirdly, you might be surprised how often this is forgotten in the working world. Frequently, operations and project management can be disregarded for specific communications tactics. So the saying goes: all our problems would be fixed if only we had a new website. The reality is these problems need for more specific operational remedies. The lesson? You usually need an operational plan (and solution) before you start marketing and communicating. That, and if it is being marketed as “too good to be true” it probably is.
Tell the truth
Sure – there was the outright fraud of festival owner Bill McFarlane. But around the whole operation there were all sorts of other fallacies. There were the people who refused to see the truth staring them down. The people who told half-lies. Those who pointed fingers at others when they held senior roles in the Fyre organization. Lies to the ticket buyers looking forward to a good time, lies to the contractors and staff working on the festival that they’d actually get paid and lies to the investors that this was going to be a smash hit – if only they kicked in a bit more money. Integrity can be like oxygen – you really start to miss it when you notice it isn’t there. Instilling in your organization a culture of truth is a crucial thing to consider – as is clear accountability and questioning. Could Fyre ever happen at your organization?
Momentum can breed irrationality
Throughout the production period of the festival, one theme of this story of disaster is runaway optimism coupled with the momentum of huge sunk costs that collide to create a runaway freight train of dysfunction that couldn’t be (easily) stopped. When Day 0 came and festival goers started arriving by the plane load, clearly the jig was up. But you really get the sense that even then, with a half constructed site, soaked mattresses lying next to Spartan tents, cancelled Blink-182 and crowds of drunken and increasingly frustrated concert goers, the organizers still hoped (maybe believed) that the experience might turn out to be like Woodstock 2017. The lesson in all of this is to be mindful of the power of momentum. Whether you are working on an important project or planning to purchase a new home, momentum can drive you to continue down a path you don’t want to go down. Sunk costs, avoiding disappointing your team and confronting failure can push off a tough decision you NEED to make. Don’t pull a Billy. If things are going of the rails – realistically weigh your options, the pros and the cons of continuing and then make a (conscious call).
Manager your risks OR Plan for the risks
Fyre seemed to have a great marketing strategy, but its project management plan definitely was light on the risk management side of things. A good project management approach involves assessing the business need, considering your organizational needs, scope, stakeholders and then creating a project charter. Then there’s a boatload of planning – what tasks need to get done, what resources need to be committed, what’s a realistic budget, performance measures, and change management that need to be put in place? Then there’s the execution and monitoring phases where you keep an eye on issues as they arrive, compare things against your plan and expectations and revise your plan accordingly. Finally there’s the closing of the project. In most projects, that looks like confirming you met your goal, final performance reporting, updated lessons learned and celebration. In Fyre’s case, the closing involved Billy McFarlane getting sued by just about everyone and going to jail for years. And evidently the celebration part happened before the project really got started. When you have a solid, well-delivered plan then the party happens at the end and it will feel sweeter.