If you've never heard of Gilmore Girls before, here's the 5-second intro. It's an American TV drama/comedy that started in 2000, lasted seven full seasons, generating 153 episodes, featuring strong female characters (girl power!), and creating stardom for its two main actors Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel. In those seven seasons, the show became well-known for its "walk-and-talks" (scenes where characters exchange important dialogue while walking), the non-stop pop culture references, the rapid-fire banter between characters, and the obscene amounts of coffee (and other foods) that the characters consume. Underneath it all though was a warm, comforting story about familial ties between three generations.
In 2016, Netflix filmed and released a sequel to the series, called Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life, made up of four episodes, taking place five years after the TV series left off. And the response to it has been nothing short of phenomenal.
So what in blue blazes does this feel-good TV show have to do with project stakeholder management, you ask? I'll get to it. But first, in true Gilmore Girls style, you need to grab a cup of coffee.
WARNING: There is exactly one (1) spoiler ahead for those that intend to watch A Year In The Life, so proceed with caution!
Key Stakeholders Hated the Final Product
Before heading into season 7, the TV network and the show's creators, Amy Sherman-Palladino and husband Daniel Palladino, could not come to an agreement regarding the hiring of more writers. The duo had been writing every word of the dialogue-driven series for six years and needed help to keep going. But the network couldn't acquiesce. Because of this, the Palladinos left at the end of their contract and the last season was written and filmed without its original writers. Unsurprisingly, the show was cancelled after the 7th season due to low ratings.
Forgot how much I hate season 7 of Gilmore Girls.
— Emily Filowiat (@emilyb_53) August 13, 2016
Remember that key stakeholders can make or break a project. If the deliverables don't fulfill key stakeholders' expectations, your project is sunk — even if you finish on time and under budget! In Gilmore Girls' case, the most important stakeholders were the viewers — some of whom had been loyal for over six years. And they generally hated the change! Or were underwhelmed with the writing and how flat the characters and situations became. Even the cast and crew were admittedly unhappy with where the story ended up.
Where Was the Pivot?
So for season 7, the network had all the same team members (cast and crew) but led by a new project manager (director), which exposed the project (TV show) to much more risk — especially since the project manager role here played a crucial creative role. All resulting in a floundering, disengaged audience.
Instead of soldiering on, the network could have been much more vigilant about gathering feedback and pivoting quickly to answer customer needs. Did they conduct focus group discussions? Did they do their audience research? Maybe they did. In this case though, no pivot would have been enough because the viewers wanted the original creators back.
Knowing What Key Stakeholders Want
In October 2014, approximately seven years after the series ended, Netflix started streaming all seven seasons of Gilmore Girls, exposing it to a whole new (and much younger) audience. This, in turn, strengthened the demand for a revival of the series — a demand that's been vocalized by fans since 2007.
If there's something that modern TV audiences realize nowadays that older generations didn't, it's that they hold the power. In recent years, fans Kickstarted the film revival of Veronica Mars (raising $2M in under 24 hours), and networks have resurrected respected TV brands such as Full House, Arrested Development, and The X-Files, all because fans have clamored for their onscreen return.
The demand for a Gilmore Girls revival did not go unheard by Netflix. They sat up and listened, corroborating the requests with actual viewer data. They are, after all, masters at understanding what shows will entertain us with their complex algorithms and the massive amounts of viewing data we give them. It made sense at that point to return to the project for an 8th season and give people what they were demanding: the chance to see new Gilmore Girls episodes on TV once again.
Have Positive Team Dynamics
In a 2015 panel at the ATX Festival, show creator Amy Sherman-Palladino had this to say when asked about the possibility of reviving the show: "Here's the good thing. Nobody here hates each other. That's a very important step. It would have to be the right everything — the right format, the right timing. It would have to be honored in a certain way. And I think that if it ever came around, I think we would all jump in and do it."
Well eventually, everything did fall into place. Netflix greenlit the production of Gilmore Girls: A Year In the Life. And team members were ready, willing, and able to resume their roles under their original project manager. United by a common objective: to finish the story properly.
Project Constraints? Return to Stakeholder Requirements
Note: Here's where the spoiler is. You've been warned.
Of course there isn't a project in existence that goes off without a hitch. Somewhere near the end of the production of A Year In The Life, the team was faced with a roadblock. A pivotal scene called for a grand wedding between two of its main characters, Luke and Lorelai. The problem? Not enough budget for extras and costumes to make the scene happen as it deserved to be shot.
In an interview with TVLine, Sherman-Palladino said: "We had to figure out how to make this wedding satisfying without doing ‘The Big Wedding'... We knew we had to do a wedding. We knew we had to get them married. There was no way we were getting out of this without getting them married. The fans have waited too long. Sometimes working in a tight frame forces you to do things that you wouldn’t normally have done that wind up actually being dramatically better. In paring all of the bells and whistles away, we get down to the crux of really what it is: It’s Luke, Lorelai, and Rory. And that made it intimate and gave it more feeling.”
The best strategy when faced with project constraints such as a lack of budget or time? Return to customer needs, to the requirements of your key stakeholders. What are the essentials, the non-negotiables? Once you've identified these, everything else can be deprioritized and scaled back. And you can proceed to find creative ways to accomplish the goals given your constraints.
That's it. If you've read this far without having seen a single Gilmore Girls episode, I implore you to get on Netflix and try just one episode. Worst-case scenario is you'll hate it, which is fine. But best-case scenario is you may just enjoy the series and in the process learn two more things crucial to leading a team to success: compassion for your eccentric teammates and an indefatigable positive attitude... fueled by caffeine, of course.