Project Management Institute

Creative genius

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BY CAROL HILDEBRAND || PHOTOS BY CHIP WILLIAMS

CREATIVE GENIUS

CREATIVITY IN PROJECT MANAGEMENT ISN'T AN OXYMORON. IT DOES EXIST AND CAN HELP SAVE TIME AND MONEY.

Donna Shirley, Managing Creativity, Seattle, Wash., USA

PROJECT MANAGERS
enjoy a reputation as people who make the trains run on time and on budget. They are focused, structured and process-oriented. What doesn't typically pop up in conversations, however, is the word creativity. It's an unfortunate omission. Companies that inspire creativity from their project leaders and teams do better—finding innovative ways to take time and money out of the project management process. The X factor missing at many companies is an organizational culture that knows how to foster creativity within the project management framework.

“A lot of people have the misconception that to be creative, one must eliminate all boundaries,” says Lynne C. Levesque, Ed.D., a consultant and trainer based in Charlestown, Mass., USA, and author of Breakthrough Creativity [Davies-Black Publishing, 2001]. “Therefore, project management's structure is antithetical to many people's idea of creativity, when really, the opposite should be true—creativity needs edges to its sandbox.”

The truth is, executives who find a way to breed creativity within projects increase their odds of success. “Projects are unique processes, so there are many opportunities for creative breakthrough, especially in setting up the project and in seeking to beat time, budget and quality requirements,” says John Varney, chief executive at the Centre for Management Creativity, a creativity consultancy in North Yorkshire, U.K.

To enable creative projects, executives must find project leaders who value and encourage creativity—something easier said than done at many companies, says Wayne Morris, founder of Future Edge Ltd., a creativity and leadership consultancy in New Plymouth, New Zealand.

“There are leadership methods better suited to managing creativity,” he says. “To get the best out of a team, a project manager needs to be skilled at directing, supporting, coaching and delegating.” Controlling leaders who make all the decisions and watch every detail tend to stifle creativity.

when the creatives GO WILD

Although it's important to instill a value on creativity, executives need to set parameters—or face anarchy.

“If you don't have the good boundaries and leadership, unmanaged creativity can send a project into chaos,” says Lynne C. Levesque, Ed.D.

Process consistency across the portfolio helps establish enterprise-wide expectations for the creative side, says Ross Yaeger, PMP, at MindComet. “A lot of it is maintaining the same discipline and consistency on things like scheduling and planning,” he says. “I would be strongly unhappy if people were deviating from that.”

The whole issue can be avoided in the first place by building a charter at the outset and maintaining focus on it throughout the course of the project. “What we call creativity run amok is really just bad leadership from the top,” Dr. Levesque says.

Sometimes facilitation skills are more important than technical prowess. “We still have the mind set that if you are good technically you will make a good manager—my experience says that is not the case,” Mr. Morris says.

He cites a list of leadership qualities created by Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap, authors of When Sparks Fly: Igniting Creativity in Groups [Harvard Business School Press, 1999]. “They stress that a creative leader's primary role is to design and maintain a supportive, safe psychological environment,” he says. To achieve this, the authors say leaders demonstrate:

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YOU HAVE TO RESPECT AND RECOGNIZE THAT CREATIVE FOLKS WILL NOT ALWAYS KNOW THE EXACT DATE WHEN SOMETHING WILL BE DONE, BUT IT'S EQUALLY IMPORTANT TO GET CREATIVE PEOPLE TO RESPECT THE PROJECT MANAGEMENT PROCESS.

—Ross Yaeger, PMP, MindComet, Orlando, Fla., USA

  • ■ Tolerance for risk-taking
  • ■ Understanding of the value of intelligent failures
  • ■ Interactive communication
  • ■ Ability to promote passion
  • ■ Autonomy
  • ■ Time for personal projects
  • ■ Optimism
  • ■ Ability to encourage serendipity
  • ■ Tolerance for paradoxes.

Creative project management encompasses every part of the process, from building a framework that encourages innovative thinking to finding creative ways to stretch time and money. And none of these opportunities for creativity are optional, says Donna Shirley president of Managing Creativity, a consultancy in Seattle, Wash., USA. “It's not enough to be technically creative within the project,”

Ms. Shirley says. “Project managers must be managerially creative and creative with personnel as well.”

When she was manager of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Mars Exploration Program, for example, Ms. Shirley faced severe cost constraints on the Pathfinder Microrover project. That prompted the team to explore hitherto unheard of money-saving avenues, such as using off-the-shelf products. “Our radio modems on the lander as well as the rover were commercial Motorola modems, and Pathfinder used a commercial computer,” she says.

TO ENABLE CREATIVE PROJECTS, EXECUTIVES MUST FIND PROJECT LEADERS WHO VALUE AND ENCOURAGE CREATIVITY—SOMETHING EASIER SAID THAN DONE AT MOST COMPANIES.

—Wayne Morris, Future Edge Ltd., New Plymouth, New Zealand

Because the team didn't know how these products would respond to space flights, “we tested the dickens out of them.” As a result, Tony Spear, the Pathfinder project manager, changed the way project time was allocated. “We were going with brand-new stuff and using ideas that hadn't been done before, so…we spent half the time building and half the time testing,” Ms. Shirley says. “It was very unusual and there were lots of time margins built in.” In this case, though, the cost savings proved worth the process modification.

Organizations should build space for creativity into the process, Mr. Varney says. “You can and must plan for creativity, but you have to put it where it's needed,” he says.

Creative types have a reputation for freewheeling brainstorming and pushing deadlines in last-minute flurries of genius. But most people function best when they're given parameters within which to work, and project management provides just that, Dr. Levesque says. “Knowing the boundaries will help your team be its most creative without wasting resources,” she says.

If you really want to persuade people of the merits of adhering to project processes, give equal respect to their creative methods, says Ross Yaeger, PMP, vice president of operations at MindComet, an interactive marketing company in Orlando, Fla., USA. “You have to respect and recognize that creative folks will not always know the exact date when something will be done, but it's equally important to get creative people to respect the project management process,” he says.

Mr. Yaeger allows for creativity—but doesn't allow it to sabotage process. Team members gather at an initial meeting where they get the background, key objectives and target demographics of the particular marketing project. After that, they're given a timeframe in which they go off to brainstorm in whatever manner they prefer. “We experimented with a sit-down brainstorming meeting, but some people felt forced,” he says. This way, people can rack their brains in whatever way works best for them—meeting in small informal groups, letting ideas simmer individually or even using an online virtual brainstorming forum. They then bring their ideas back to the next meeting, and the team decides on the concept. “We try to have a strong process that's fast, but still gives them the flexibility to come up with neat ideas their own way,” Mr. Yaeger says.

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The creative process should start with recognition of a need and end with the need fulfilled, Mr. Varney says. In between, divergent and convergent thinking alternate. The secret is to allow space to produce imaginative ideas before moving toward a decision or commitment. Converging too soon is a common mistake—many people are uncomfortable hanging in the void when the clock is ticking, so they rush to close.

THE WHOLE TEAM HAS TO BE CREATIVE. IT DOESN'T DO MUCH GOOD FOR A SINGLE PERSON TO BE CREATIVE BY THEMSELVES.

—Donna Shirley

CREATIVE TYPES HAVE A REPUTATION FOR FREEWHEELING BRAINSTORMING AND PUSHING DEADLINES IN LAST-MINUTE FLURRIES OF GENIUS. BUT MOST PEOPLE WORK BEST WHEN THEY'RE GIVEN PARAMETERS.

—Lynne C. Levesque, Ed.D., consultant, Charlestown, Mass, USA

Most often, the fault lies with project managers who tend to shortchange the brainstorming phase to get into implementation action. “We often subscribe to the problem-solving process of ready, fire, aim,” Mr. Morris says. “We don't spend enough time up front doing the creative stuff.”

Giving team members the freedom to think outside the lines means project managers must keep firm reins on the ripple effect that changes and new ideas can have across the project.

To keep the process of building the rover on track, for example, the team controlled how each sub-team used the extra time and money margins allocated to them. “When one sub-team couldn't solve a problem within its own margin they would come ask for some of mine, and we never allocated the big margin without calling the entire team together,” Ms. Shirley says. At that meeting, the team would try to find ways for another group to contribute solutions or respond to changes wrought by new problems.

“The whole team has to be creative,” she says. “It doesn't do much good for a single person or sub-group to be creative by themselves. And to get everybody involved, you have to allocate resources as a whole team.”

Although having someone able to view the project from 10,000 feet is always necessary, project managers can spur creativity by giving individual team members more authority over tactical decisions.

To maximize income, Mr. Yaeger has thoroughly educated the entire MindComet project staff on how to manage a project in terms of its overall return to the company. By instilling an intimate knowledge of project costs across the team, he can empower team members down to the coordinator level to make cost decisions, which speeds the process along. Instead of charging a standard hourly rate for labor, for example, the company offers several different levels. Project managers choose which resources they'll use to protect the project's profit.

“The [industry's] thin margins can lead to very creative ways of protecting what you're making,” he says. “Our business moves so fast that being able to make decisions quickly allows us to be more responsive.”

Finally, don't forget to circle back at the end of a project. Everybody knows the maxim about not learning from history, and yet it's still common to let a project close without gleaning the most creative new concepts and processes. “Make sure you listen,” Dr. Levesque says. She recommends conducting a post mortem meeting at the close of every project to find the best ideas for re-use, as well as looking at what didn't work and coming up with alternatives.

Mr. Varney calls this process “harvesting the crop,” and says it's a smart final step in corralling creativity. “You want to pull every scrap of learning from every project,” he says.

Otherwise, you will be stuck sitting around waiting for another one of those bursts of creative genius. PM

Carol Hildebrand is a freelance writer based in Wellesley, Mass., USA. She is a former senior editor at CIO, and her work has appeared in Baseline, Darwin, Computerworld, Network World and other publications.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM NETWORK | JANUARY 2007 | WWW.PMI.ORG

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