A solution to every problem


With a little creativity, team obstacles can be turned into opportunities.


Even the best project team members can hit the wall: They feel disengaged, out of ideas, stuck in a rut or simply ready to move on. But by inspiring their teams' creativity, project managers can look at these common team problems—and instead see solutions.



Your team doesn't feel engaged or valued.


Helping team members self-identify as thinkers rather than mere cogs makes them feel they're vital to the project—and boosts their involvement. That may sound like a big mentality shift, but enabling it can be simple.

“I have a policy I call ‘opening the doors,' where I encourage team members to talk to each other and to me, and to bring big ideas to the table,” says Fabiana Cabral Merino, PMP, project manager at Michelin, a PMI Global Executive Council member in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “Making it clear that I want them to take risks in their thinking lets the ideas flow.”

As part of that open-door policy, Ms. Cabral Merino creates an online database for each new project. Any team member can log on to it at any time and add an idea to the mix. “Keeping the project progress visible to everyone builds a culture of collaborative thinking,” she says.

While internally generated motivation can be effective, so can a little external push. Yota Wada, PMP, director of product development at Turbulenz Ltd. in Guildford, England, finds that his team of computer-game designers and game-play engineers is more likely to feel invested in a project when members receive input from external sources. Simply knowing that their work is being evaluated motivates them.

“Sharing positive feedback from management, the marketing department and game testers empowers the team and gets them more engaged,” he says.


“I have a policy I call ‘opening the doors,’ where I encourage team members to talk to each other and to me, and to bring big ideas to the table.”

—Fabiana Cabral Merino, PMP, Michelin, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil


“Creativity is a business capability just like HR, sales, marketing, etc.”

—Jay Payette, PMP, Payette Consulting, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada


You've got a project with added ambiguity or complexity—but your team isn't coming up with innovative ideas.


Stop chasing that one eureka idea and go after lots of less remarkable ones instead.

It sounds counterintuitive, but when it comes to cooking up creative solutions, research suggests that quantity trumps quality. In a study published in the Journal of Accounting Research, subjects who focused solely on producing creative ideas actually generated fewer of them than those who focused on producing any ideas at all. When we're hyper-fixated on churning out creative ideas, the study found, we tend to self-censor. We pressure ourselves to come up with the perfect solution and filter out anything that seems less than brilliant.

Make your team aware that, in brainstorming sessions, there are no bad ideas. “You have to let the team know that it's OK to fail,” says Phil Patrick, PMP, principal of Lord & Patrick LLC, San Francisco, California, USA. “I've been in situations where I found myself throwing out ideas that may have been off the wall, but when there's no stigma attached to being wrong, creativity isn't stifled and you tend to think more deeply about things.”

That said, brainstorming is not the same as a free-for-all. Group sessions work best with a few ground rules: For example, all team members must come to the meeting with ideas, each member must contribute ideas, and anyone who shoots down an idea has to offer a new one.

On especially challenging projects, look to industries outside your own to spark innovative ideas. “Even if there's no crossover in product, there are lessons to be learned,” says Jay Payette, PMP, managing principal of Payette Consulting, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He points to organizations known for their creativity, like Apple and Netflix. “Their outputs have been so successful; why wouldn't we adopt their processes?”


Drawing up a diagram of trailblazing, forward-thinking companies—Amazon and its so-called profitless business model, for example—and asking your team how their lessons apply to the project at hand can yield fresh insights. “Creativity is a business capability just like HR, sales, marketing, etc.,” Mr. Payette says.

While group dialogue can produce creative output, a little alone time can go a long way. Mr. Payette sets a blackout period, typically no more than a couple of hours, when meetings are banned. “Once you get all these ideas from colleagues, you need to take a step back and distill everything,” he says. “Applying your own personal experiences to that problem makes it likely you'll have something more to bring to the group.”

To spur innovation, Ms. Cabral Merino relies on a time-tested human resources incentive: She offers team members some time off. “The promise of compensation makes team members more dedicated,” she says, “and that frees up space to think of innovative ideas.”


“Teams typically go in one direction for a long time, and they tend to gravitate around certain ideas. One of the best ways to mitigate that is to bring in someone not exposed to that inertia. They challenge the status quo.”

—Jay Payette


Your team is stuck in a rut—and seems happy to stay there.


When the team dynamic gets stale, Ms. Cabral Merino shuffles members' roles so that everyone gets a new and different task. “Routine causes passivity,” she says. “If you don't continually challenge people's minds, they become complacent and tend to react negatively to new ideas.”

When everyone's creative wheel needs to be set in motion again, bringing in an outsider—someone with no ties to the project—could provide the jump start your team needs. A study in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes that followed the effects of membership change on group creativity found that, after a new person entered the fold, the group came up with more creative ideas.

“On a project, teams typically go in one direction for a long time, and they tend to gravitate around certain ideas,” says Mr. Payette. “One of the best ways to mitigate that is to bring in someone not exposed to that inertia. They challenge the status quo.”

Mr. Payette recalls a time when he played the newcomer. His client developed a product that was ultimately deemed too expensive for its target consumer audience. “I said, ‘Why not change your business model and sell to corporations instead?'” he says. The company took his advice, and the product was successful. “It was a complete paradigm shift that never would have occurred to them otherwise.”

A simple change of scenery can also do the trick. According to several studies, detaching from one's usual physical environment inhibits the logical part of one's brain and frees up space for abstract processing—in other words, creative insights.

Google equips its global headquarters with volleyball courts and a bowling alley, but even in the absence of high-end sports equipment, simply allowing your team to focus on something other than work—say, granting an extra-long lunch break on an especially grueling day or letting team members attend an afternoon yoga class—is a surefire brain-refresher.

“You never know where inspiration will strike,” says Mr. Payette. “When you immerse yourself in a different world, new ideas will come.”


“People respond to seeing that things are getting done and knowing that key milestones have been met. It inspires intrinsic motivation, and that carries over to the next project.”

—Phil Patrick, PMP, Lord & Patrick LLC, San Francisco, California, USA


Your team isn't interested in lessons learned.


Instead of debriefing after the project ends, when the team may feel fatigued and burned out, hammer home key insights over the course of the project. Talking about lessons learned in the present—rather than recalling events from weeks or months ago—boosts the team's engagement and makes the knowledge more likely to stick. It's the difference between studying for an exam for weeks and cramming the night before the test. Indeed, retention levels are greater when study sessions are spaced out rather than squeezed into one sitting, research indicates.

To combat the cramming effect, Ms. Cabral Merino relies on a “lessons learned database,” which an appointed team member updates throughout the project. “We look back at it on future projects and use it to continually improve processes,” she says.

Similarly, Mr. Patrick emails his team a weekly action register, which keeps track of completed tasks and the lessons learned from them. “People respond to seeing that things are getting done and knowing that key milestones have been met,” he says. “It inspires intrinsic motivation, and that carries over to the next project.”

Mr. Payette recommends that team members keep their own lessons log, in which they document important insights daily or weekly. At the end of the project, he suggests aggregating everyone's observations and distributing them to the group. “Putting together something digestible is much more effective than handing out a huge post-mortem document,” he says.

If chunks of text cause team members' eyes to glaze over, try a visual aid. About 65 percent of people are visual learners, according to research, so mapping the pivotal findings on charts and graphs could amp up engagement levels—and increase the chances that lessons learned will be applied to future projects. PM


From comedy to auto, other industries can offer project practitioners valuable tips and tricks for sparking team creativity.

Improv: Say “yes, and...”


In improvisational comedy, when one performer comes up with an idea, another responds with “yes, and....” Rather than shutting down the first idea in search of a better one, the whole cast rolls with it, building on the initial insight with more details—which moves the scene, or the project, forward.

Tech: Get experimental


“If you double the number of experiments you do per year, you're going to double your inventiveness,” said Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Amazon fosters a culture of employee innovation and idea generation. The more ideas they test, the more innovations they'll produce.

Entertainment: Make friends


A study of actors found that when they had denser social connections—that is, they knew each other better—they were more likely to collaborate and share ideas. The takeaway: Create situations where your team members get to know, and trust, each other.

Auto: Join the smart crowd


In recent years, auto companies such as Nissan, Volkswagen and Ford, looking to develop cutting-edge technology, have set up research labs in Silicon Valley, California, USA, a global epicenter of innovation. Call it the rub-off effect: When searching for ideas in new fields, seek out field leaders.




Related Content

  • Leadership and team dynamics in the new millennium member content open

    By Raghupathy, Shobhna There is a pronounced shift in the demands confronting organizational leadership, and these changes are a reflection of shifts in the global marketplace. With globalization, companies need to…

  • PM Network

    Holding on to the reins member content open

    Delegating tasks sustains project momentum but may also present unforeseen risks. Practitioners discuss when and how to assign their teams the right responsibilities, at the right time, within the…