The best thing that can be said about the Fyre Festival fiasco is that it provides a teachable moment in how not to manage large-scale creative projects. The doomed “luxury musical festival” that was a social media laughing stock in 2017 and is now the focus of brand-new documentaries on Hulu and Netflix features all the elements of a project manager’s nightmare–poor planning, blown budgets, lack of accountability and unrealistic and unmet expectations are just the start. Whether you’re planning a major event or a new product launch, you can learn from where festival organizers like Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule went wrong. Here are 10 key project management lessons we can learn from the disaster that was the Fyre Festival.
1) Be careful what you promise
What raised the stakes on delivery was an epic promotional video used to build interest for Fyre Festival. It opens with a shot of a deserted island, with a voiceover saying, “The actual experience exceeds all expectations,” while images flash of private jets and the world’s top supermodels. Not only was this image impossible to live up to, it made the gap between the eventual reality and the expectation all the more embarrassing when organizers didn’t deliver. Smart project managers keep a tight handle on stakeholder expectations from the start.
2) Listen to your people
Chloe Gordon worked on the festival and says everyone around the leaders saw it was going to fail. “It was clear to most of us that nothing was going to come together at this rate,” she later wrote for The Cut. “I cannot explain how or why the bros running this festival ignored every warning sign they were given along the way. The writing was on the wall. I saw it firsthand six weeks ago.” Multiple people in the documentaries warned organizers, but they refused to listen, and now they’re paying the price. If someone on your team raises a red flag about so aspect of a project, take the time to assess their concerns.
3) Keep communication open
According to the Netflix documentary, the owner of the private island organizers were going to use wanted to rebrand the island and asked them not to mention the rumor that it was once owned by drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. That very sentence showed up in their promo video, which got them kicked off the island. If proper approval and communication channels had been set up, they would have been able to keep the original, promised location.
4) Money can’t solve everything
A big budget is nice, but it can’t buy you more than 24 hours in a day. About a month before the festival, according to VICE, “[Organizers] were running low on cash and the festival lacked fundamental necessities — toilets and showers, for example — and they were running out of time. One supplier told VICE News that when they were contacted by the festival in April, they told the organizers that all the money in the world wouldn’t get trailers for toilets and showers past customs in time, because that takes weeks to process.” Organizer Billy McFarland thought angel investors could grant wishes, but that just wasn’t true.
5) Know when to cut your losses
When the timeline became too tight, Gordon says staff realized “the best idea…would be to roll everyone’s tickets over to 2018 and start planning for the next year immediately. They had a meeting with the Fyre execs to deliver the news. A member of the marketing team said, ‘Let’s just do it and be legends, man.’” They are legends, but not for the right reason.
6) Make a budget and invest in fundamentals first
McFarland went so strong on paying to promote the event that he seemed to forget about the costs of the events itself. According to VICE, in a meeting McFarland had with a potential investor, he “intimated that Fyre had spent several million dollars on celebrity endorsements and marketing and now needed cash to pay vendors, staffers, and artists.” Don’t spend so much on the icing that you forget about the cake.
7) Don’t promise the impossible
As long as McFarland was bringing in ticket sales, he didn’t care about anything else. According to the Netflix documentary, he invented new packages, like cabanas that didn’t exist, to sell before they were ready. Deliver what you originally committed to doing before upselling the client and/or adding new challenges to your team’s plate.
8) Don’t surround yourself with yes people
It wasn’t just that McFarland didn’t listen to his people, he got rid of those saying things he didn’t like. According to VICE, “The organizers … cycled through several production teams, after firing some for saying the job was impossible.” Good project managers understand the value of critical feedback and constructive conflict.
9) Respect your team
For a festival that was supposed to be an amazing time, it seems like everyone around McFarland was miserable. He didn’t pay his workers or his vendors, he didn’t treat his creative staff with respect, and he certainly didn’t seem to care about the concert-goers. If you don’t treat your team with respect and work to motivate them in a positive way, don’t expect them to go the extra mile for you.
10) Own your failures
The day that Fyre Festival was supposed to happen, McFarland sent out a message that said, “Due to circumstances out of our control, the physical infrastructure was not in place on-time and we are unable to fulfill on that vision safely and enjoyably for our guests.” An employee on the Netflix documentary said it was entirely under their control. If they had owned their mistakes, they might not have had so many people gleefully mocking them to the world on social media. Take ownership of any project failings instead of trying to pass the buck and step up with a plan for how you’ll make things right for your client
While the mistakes of Fyre Festival seem obvious in hindsight, it can often be difficult even for experienced project managers to spot when things are going wrong in real time and make the necessary course corrections. If you keep these 10 lessons in mind, however, you can minimize the risk of your next big creative project imploding in such spectacular (and public) fashion.