Unleashing the project genie (creativity for project managers)


Are you as creative as you need to be as you lead your project teams to tackle difficult projects and issues? As a project manager, unleashing your potential for creativity, the project genie within you, can lead to enhanced project success, improved leadership skills, and fruitful relationships. Additionally, creativity can help develop the soft skills (communications, leadership skills, and relationship-building skills), which are also critical to your success as a project manager. The purpose of this paper is to explore the project manager's potential for creativity, to learn techniques for enhancing creativity, and to learn to overcome common obstacles to creativity. Learn to unleash the creative project genie within.

This paper explores the potential for creativity that is available to every project manager regardless of experience or knowledge. The following topics will be covered:

  • Applications of creativity—Review opportunities to engage the creative genie during the project life cycle.
  • The genie within—Understand how best to awaken the genie of creativity within ourselves.
  • The creative process—Learn the creative process and to harness it for employment on your projects.
  • Obstacles to the creative process—Learn to recognize and overcome the obstacles to creativity.
  • Problem solving—Learn to harness your creativity to routinely solve problems for personal, project, business, and relationship benefits.

Introduction to Creativity in the Project Environment

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) 4th Edition states that “effective project managers acquire a balance of technical, interpersonal, and conceptual skills that help them analyze situations and interact appropriately” (p. 409). Creativity is a tool that can enhance the project manager's effectiveness in the application of these skills thereby improving the chances of success on a project. Through the effective use of creativity techniques, a project manager can enhance the application of technical processes and lead the project team to the successful delivery of project objectives. Creativity can also improve the application of interpersonal skills, which in turn lead to enhanced relationships with the project team and other stakeholders. The creative project manager not only uses creativity in resolving difficult project issues but also leads the project team to become a high performance team more effectively analyzing project obstacles and using innovative techniques to solve the problems of the project. Applying creativity and innovation in the concept stage of the project will also lead to more productive and value-enhancing solutions.

Creativity Defined

“Creative activity could be described as a type of learning process where teacher and pupil are located in the same individual”—Arthur Koestler (Quotes on Creativity and Innovation, 2009).

So what is creativity? In “The Social Psychology of Creativity,” Amabile (1983) defines creativity as: “A product or response will be judged as creative to the extent that (a) it is both a novel and appropriate, useful, correct or valuable response to the task at hand, and (b) the task is heuristic rather than algorithmic” (p. 33). In keeping with this definition, creativity for the purpose of this paper is the ability to generate and apply novel ideas in response to the task at hand or, more specifically, to the process of project management. The project manager is in a position to not only apply creativity to the process of project management but also lead project participants to higher levels of creativity in the initiation, planning, execution, controlling, and closing of projects.

Creativity Tools for Project Management

“Genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration”—Thomas Edison (Quotes on Creativity and Innovation, 2009).

Although many tools exist to enhance creativity, the following categories of tools are the most useful in the application of project management processes:

  • Improving products, services or processes
  • Creating new products, services, processes, or strategies
  • Generating ideas
  • Finding solutions
  • Conflict resolution
  • Problem solving.

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) 4th Edition specifically notes the following techniques to enhance creativity or solve problems:

  • Brainstorming—Facilitating process to generate and collect ideas
  • Nominal group technique—Enhances brainstorming by ranking ideas for further brainstorming or prioritization
  • Idea/mind mapping—Process to generate ideas
  • Affinity diagramming—Process for grouping a large number of ideas into groups for further analysis
  • Force field analysis—Diagramming of the forces for or against change
  • Cause and effect diagramming—Diagramming process that can help analyze and solve problems
  • SWOT analysis—Analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats
  • Root cause analysis—Process for identifying and solving problems.

Applications of Creativity in the Project Environment

“Doing the same thing over and over, yet expecting different results, is the definition of crazy”—Unknown (Quotes on Creativity and Innovation, 2009).

Exhibit 1 highlights some of the major interpersonal skills expected of a project manager along with samples of potential applications of creativity to augment and enhance these skills.

Interpersonal Skills and Sample Applications of Creativity Interpersonal Skills and Sample Applications of Creativity

Exhibit 1: Interpersonal Skills and Sample Applications of Creativity

The application of creativity will vary by the project management process groups as defined by the Project Management Institute. Each of the process groups are identified in this section along with potential applications of creativity within that process group.


The initiation phase of a project is critical to the definition and survival of the project. The project manager, working with the project sponsor and primary stakeholders, has the primary challenge of developing the project vision. The challenge for the project manager is that the project's objectives need to be translated into a vision that connects with all stakeholders.

The “Productive Thinking Model” (also known as “thinkx”) developed by Tim Hurson is just one potential creativity model that can be used in project initiation to generate a cohesive project vision along with a proposed project solution. This model is comprised of six steps (Creativity Techniques, 2009):

  • Step 1: “What's Going On?”—Assessing current context and background
  • Step 2: “What's Success?”—Determining a vision for the future
  • Step 3: “What's the Question?”—Take the project challenge and convert it into questions by brainstorming.
  • Step 4: “Generate Answers”—Generate potential solutions
  • Step 5: “Forge the Solution”—Develop the selected solution
  • Step 6: “Align Resources”—Translate the selected solution into an action plan

Brainstorming and other creativity techniques can also be used to identify stakeholders and to develop stakeholder strategies.


Although all the processes within the Planning process group can benefit from the application of creative techniques and processes, the scope management processes stand to benefit the most. By using these techniques, the foundation for the project, the scope baseline, becomes a value-added representation of the project objectives. The PMBOK® Guide (4th edition) specifically refers to several idea and decision-making techniques for the “Collect Requirements” process.

The “Define Scope” process can also benefit from idea generating processes. The uniqueness of the scoping process is that it can benefit from most of the categories of idea generation and problem-solving techniques, including but not limited to, the techniques listed in Exhibit 2.

Creativity Techniques for the Scoping Processes Creativity Techniques for the Scoping Processes

Exhibit 2: Creativity Techniques for the Scoping Processes

All of the remaining processes in the Planning Process group can also benefit from many of the same creativity techniques listed in Exhibit 2. Brainstorming, Creative Problem Solving, the Journalist's Questions and Root Cause Analysis are techniques that can be applied to almost every process in Planning.

Executing and Controlling

The creative problem-solving techniques can be used to resolve problems that surface during the execution of the project and can also be used to address issues that surface as a result of variance analysis. Creativity can be used by the project manager to strengthen leadership power, enhance stakeholder management, resolve conflict among stakeholders, effectively make and communicate decisions, solve problems, negotiate, and coach.

Additional doses of creativity can be used by the project manager to enhance the routine of project management tasks. Project team meetings, for example, can be enhanced by taking novel approaches to this routine including, but not limited to: rotating meeting chairs, conducting brief “stand up” meetings, varying locations (including outdoors if the weather is accommodating), using timing clocks or meters, or eliminating some or all of the meetings (without eliminating necessary communications).


Closing is an opportunity to bring the project stakeholders together to obtain stakeholder buy-in and acceptance of project deliverables and facilitating the process of project and team shut-down. The idea generating and problem solving techniques can be particularly useful for the identification of lessons learned.

The Genie Within

“Imagination is more important than knowledge”—Albert Einstein (Quotes on Creativity and Innovation, 2009).

If project managers can benefit significantly from additional creativity, then how do we awaken the creative genie within? Research performed by Teresa Amabile (1983) indicated that there are three components of creativity in individuals: domain-relevant skills, creativity-relevant skills, and task motivation. Amabile proposed that all three components must be present for an individual to be truly creative. We will now take a brief look at each of these components as they relate to a project manager.

Domain-Relevant Skills

For project managers, the domain-relevant skills for project management include the knowledge, talent and experience in the execution of interpersonal skills and the processes defined within the PMBOK® Guide. Additionally, knowledge of the business of the client of the project can enhance the project manager's ability to be creative in defining project solutions. Generally, ideas generated by the trained project manager will have more relevance to the project management process than ideas generated by poorly trained or inexperienced project managers.

Creativity-Relevant Skills

Amabile (1983) proposed that there are three groups of creativity-relevant skills:

  • Cognitive style—This is the ability and willingness to bend rules, suspend judgment, to abandon set ways, and to see things differently than others.
  • Knowledge of heuristics—Heuristics are tips for coming up with new or novel ideas.
  • Work style—A positive attitude, high energy, persistence, and the willingness to work hard are components of a work style that aid in the creative process.

Task Motivation

The willingness to perform the task, the positive attitude toward the task itself, is the third component for creativity. In her research, Amabile discovered that an unwillingness to perform the task directly results in lower levels of creativity. “The highest creativity occurs when we discover the need for a creative response ourselves and choose to contribute independent of any possible external constraints” (Howard, 2006, p. 613).

The Creative Process

“A person might be able to play without being creative, but he sure can't be creative without playing”—Kurt Hanks and Jay Parry (Quotes on Creativity and Innovation, 2009).

Graham Wallace (1926) originated the idea of a four-stage creative process that has since been updated by many recent writers on the topic. The four stages are summarized next.

The First Stage—Preparation

This is the process of performing research and collecting information. It also includes preparing materials and resources for the task of creativity. Preparing for creativity is necessary for the creative act.

The Second Stage—Incubation

This is the stage that allows the collected information and facts to gestate in the mind. Letting go of the data even briefly allows the mind to gain perspective. Pierce Howard, PhD, reported that “A commonly reported form of incubation is dreaming. Elias Howe dreamed of primitives with spears that had eyes at the end, which led to the invention of the sewing machine” (Howard, 2006, p. 617).

The Third Stage—Inspiration

This is the moment of discovery or illumination. This is the “eureka” or “aha” moment. This is where the preparation and incubation pays off, often occurring in an instant or through the process of one of the creativity generating techniques noted earlier.

The Fourth Stage—Evaluation

This is the process of evaluating or testing the solution to ensure that it will function as expected. This stage is a confirmation that the idea will work.

Obstacles to the Creative Process

Pierce Howard (2006, p. 632-633) identified specific obstacles to the creative process, which are summarized as:

  • A critical nature/personality traits. Being negative or critical of the process or just being of a critical nature is an obstacle to creativity. This critical nature is sometimes referred to as “the voice of judgment or functional fixedness” (Howard, 2006, p. 632). Certain personality traits can be resistant to change.
  • Poor diet or physical condition. A poor unhealthy diet can inhibit creativity. Generally, being in better health and active contribute to improved creativity.
  • Fear. Fear is the great inhibitor. Fear can be based on many factors but is generally accompanied by a lack of faith in personal ability.
  • An unproductive conflict style. Searching for win-win solutions generates more creativity than resolving conflict through other methods that tend to be more negative or place a party at a disadvantage or lose position.
  • Out of flow (or synch). If the task at hand is not in synch with the capabilities of the individual or team, this can lead to frustration and become an obstacle to creativity.
  • A highly developed super-ego. Inhibits creativity.
  • Left-hemisphere dominance. Logic only inhibits creativity.
  • A conservative culture. The culture itself may not lend itself to creativity or change to standard norms.
  • Inappropriate questioning skills. Closed-ended questions or agenda specific questions inhibit creativity.
  • An unchanging perspective. Seeing the same perspective and never placing yourself in someone else's seat also inhibits creativity.
  • A need for power and control. The Theory X or autocratic manager or individual who sees solutions as only his or her way not only inhibits self-initiated creativity but also team creativity.
  • Pessimism. Research has proven that pessimism contributes to significantly lower levels of creativity.
  • Time constraints. Unnecessary time constraints can limit creativity. In a situation with an unnecessary time constraint, a solution, any solution is preferred to the potentially more creative solution.
  • External rewards. “Enticing someone with external rewards to produce creative results tends to be less effective than encouraging creativity for its own sake” (Howard, 2006, p. 635).

Before undertaking a creative task, understand these obstacles to creativity and proactively plan to remove as many if not all these obstacles prior to performing the creative task.

Problem Solving

As the project size or complexity increases, the project manager and project team will inevitably face various types of problems. Exhibit 3 identifies some of the more common problems encountered in a structured project environment along with potential techniques to solve these problems.

Typical Project Management Problems

Exhibit 3: Typical Project Management Problems

The following are a few lessons learned for empowering a project team to become better problems solvers as a team:

  • Encourage open communications
  • Support “equal voice” for all team members
  • Support and enforce complete “open door” communications
  • Promote a positive work environment
  • Make the project environment “fun”
  • Encourage creativity
  • Find creative and fun ways to perform routine project work
  • Teach creativity techniques to all team members
  • Reward early problem identification


As a project manager, you can significantly enhance your project success by unleashing the project genie of creativity. As a leader, work on removing barriers to creativity and promote the use of creativity techniques. Creativity not only helps you lead your team to success, but also helps you develop the soft skills (communications, leadership skills, and relationship building skills) that are also critical to your success as a project manager.


Amabile, T. M. (1983). The social psychology of creativity. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Creativity Techniques. (2009). Retrieved from Mycoted.com, website: http://www.mycoted.com/

Howard, P. J. (2006). The owner's manual for the brain. Austin, TX: Bard Press.

Project Management Institute. (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) 4th ed. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Quotes on Creativity and Innovation. (2009). Retrieved from http://www.leadershipnow.com/creativityquotes.html

© 2010, Eddie Merla, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Melbourne, Australia



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