Creative force


Chris Eichenseer, Someoddpilot, Chicago, Illinois, USA



Though it has been studied and discussed for centuries, the creative process remains largely shrouded in mystery. Equally as cryptic is the project manager's role in nurturing innovation among team members.

This is no esoteric question for scholars to ponder. All teams depend on bursts of original thinking—whether they're designing special effects for a video game slated for a holiday release or figuring out how best to install a next-gen e-mail server with a minimum of system downtime.

Tapping a team's collective power of innovation can improve morale, slash costs, save time and turn limited resources into renewable fountains of plenty.

Sometimes, though, teams get stuck in a rut. They fall into the same rote protocol, with brainstorming sessions leading nowhere and all those attempts at cutting-edge initiatives seeming stale.

So how can project managers help break their teams out of the doldrums?

“Project leaders can motivate unconventional thought first and foremost by creating the environment where creative thought can flourish,” says Alan E. Yue, PMP, president of PreNetSys, an IT and project management consultancy based in Honolulu, Hawaii, USA.

Innovation and creativity must be structured processes, says Mário Henrique Trentim, PMI-RMP, PMP, Department of Airspace Control, Brazilian Air Force, Recife, Brazil. “Brainstorming is a technique and should be used with focus and purpose. Project managers can motivate their teams to think outside the box by inspiring them to participate and contribute to the project planning.”


Bereft of stimuli, creativity suffers. So it's no surprise that a paucity of imagination often afflicts the typical office cubicle farm. Fortunately, that particular malady can be fairly easily addressed.

“The first thing I'd do is rip down the cubicle walls, push the desks together, make a couple extra desks available and stock them with sketchbook paper, paints and all kinds of utensils ready to go for an art desk,” says Chris Eichenseer, owner of the design agency Someoddpilot, Chicago, Illinois, USA.

For about 10 years, he has followed clients' sometimes vague directives on website projects—from identification of brand directives to final site delivery and implementation—with milestones connected to specific deliverables and client sign-offs. And he does so with an ever-varying team comprised of some full-timers as well as a collection of contractors.

Sometimes developing that creative genius takes an innovative workspace solution.

“Get your people to start talking a lot and putting things up on the wall. Encourage everybody to bring in their favorite artwork and prints,” Mr. Eichenseer says. “You may need to tear the place apart so the environment fits the work that needs to be done.”

You can't just stand in front of an empty whiteboard and expect team members to lob brilliant ideas your way.

“If you're going to encourage people to think creatively, you have to provide some kind of input,” Mr. Eichenseer says.

“An empty desk and a blank screen never inspired anything but fear,” he says. “If you're trying to generate ideas, you need to give the mind something to chew on. That could mean going outside with a camera and taking a bunch of interesting photos or going to a rock show and letting ideas come—whatever you can do to feed the brain.”

Encourage project teams to read books or articles from publications they might not ordinarily peruse, and scan the web for blogs, articles and videos. Good ideas are often a product of connecting two or more disparate concepts.

“The key ingredient is for the project manager to model risk-taking and the willingness to verbalize ideas that are partially formulated,” says Steve Flannes, PhD, principal of Flannes & Associates, Oakland, California, USA, and co-author of the book Essential People Skills for Project Managers [Management Concepts, 2005].

Get people to think about questions such as, “If money was not an option, what is the very best solution that we can come up with?” he suggests. “What is the most off-the-wall idea that you can imagine that might solve our problem?”

Sometimes kick-starting creativity is as simple as giving someone a new role. “I once had a team with a very quiet team member,” Dr. Flannes recalls. “She said little in meetings but appeared to know her stuff and did good work. Her creativity really surfaced when I asked her to serve as the facilitator for a couple of team meetings in which she was asked to play the role of subject-matter expert. Given this permission to be ‘the expert,’ she came forward with contributions that she might not have otherwise.”

Creativity has to be seen as a team effort.

“If you are undertaking this challenge of encouraging everyone to think creatively, position it from the start as a collective contribution,” says Kate Nasser, an independent people-skills trainer and coach in Somerville, New Jersey, USA. “Most brainstorming and innovative sessions start with individual contributions that begin to spur other ideas. Soon you realize that all participated in the chosen idea—even those whose ideas were not singularly implemented.”


Someoddpilot studio, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Producer Dan Fletcher throws himself into the mix whenever there's a new project at Firebrand Games, a video game developer in Glasgow, Scotland. Mr. Fletcher sits the team around the table, lays out a problem and offers a possible solution.

Then he lets his team “rip it to shreds before coming up with a better solution,” he says.


Whatever methods they choose to inspire innovative thinking, project managers must recognize what team members will respond to—and what will fall flat.


As with most aspects of work, there's a time and a place for visionary thinking.

“Creative thought offered at an inappropriate time or in an inappropriate venue, such as in a meeting with multiple stakeholders present, can introduce threat risk to project efforts,” says Alan E. Yue, PMP, PreNetSys, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA.

“Project leaders who encourage teams to think creatively must also coach teams on how and when to offer creative suggestions. Like any skill or ability, creative thought must have discipline and be applied in ways that minimize threat risks and maximize opportunities.”

Before you encourage your project teams to let loose whenever the mood strikes, keep stakeholders in mind.

“The danger would be to encourage team members to be creative on a project where the sponsoring executive does not want or can't afford innovation, and instead just wants a cheap and easy solution,” says Steve Flannes, PhD, Flannes & Associates, Oakland, California, USA. “Encouraging creativity in those settings sets the team up for failure.”

“I've used both mind mapping software and team exercises successfully in the past, but the key thing is to get to know your team and understand what they'll buy into,” Mr. Fletcher says. “If someone has a predefined response to something like a team exercise and they don't buy in, it's not worth doing. So adapt and think of other things.”

To keep those creative juices flowing, project managers have to create a welcoming space “in which people are affirmed and treated with respect,” advises Dr. Flannes.

img TIP Creative genius starts with you. “Think about inspiring, not motivating,” says Kate Nasser, Somerville, New Jersey, USA. “Inspiration comes through asking for outside-the-box thinking more than once. You must appreciate this thinking when it is offered—even if the idea is not used—and modeling the behavior by doing it yourself and expressing the value in it.”

And that's where project management becomes more art than science, says Mr. Fletcher.

“It's more about culture, and that needs to be bred over a long period,” he says. “It's done by trying to foster an atmosphere of positivity rather than negativity, an atmosphere that encourages the inquisitive mind and discourages, where possible, the focus on deadlines and checking boxes of completed items.”

Project managers can illustrate the value of creative thinking with real-life ROI.

“In construction, for example, think of all the modern advances that have accommodated persons with disabilities or innovative answers that allow buildings to be built on tough terrain,” Ms. Nasser says. “Most people relate to true stories closely connected to their work, so comb the web and your colleagues for great examples.”


With all those ideas floating around, it's inevitable that some concepts won't be quite relevant to the task at hand or can't be implemented for whatever reason. That leaves the project manager in an awkward position.

“Team members commonly have good ideas but they don't share them because they are not encouraged to do so,” says Mr. Trentim, who is also the director of iPM Consult, a project management training and consulting company in Recife, Brazil. “They feel like their contributions won't be accepted or that they could be criticized.”

Ideas, no matter their value to a project, have tremendous intrinsic worth to those who came up with them. And people often feel very protective of them. It's up to the project manager to make sure everyone understands that his or her contributions are valued even if they're not used.

“Team members who experience positive feedback when they offer creative thought will then be prone to continue providing creative thought,” Mr. Yue says.

When people feel their ideas are constantly brushed aside, frustration is inevitable. Project managers must tread carefully so team members don't get discouraged.

“Avoid any disparaging remarks,” Ms. Nasser advises. “Outside-the-box thinking is psychologically risky for some. Remove the risk by never criticizing the ideas.”

Even the most out-there suggestions could be used on another project.

“Ideas that may not seem immediately valuable may become invaluable at some point in the future,” Mr. Yue says. “Ideas should not be discarded, and should be kept as a part of the project archive.”

Tight budgets have a way of quashing creativity, but resist the urge to kill ideas outright based on the inevitable economies of time and money.

“It's important to ensure that within a naturally creative environment such as the gaming industry, the lines of communication are always open,” Mr. Fletcher says. “It's best to avoid having designers and programmers dwell too much on achievability within the cost or timescale of a project. It's better to let the ideas flow and think about the practicality of implementing those ideas at a later date.”

Just consider it part of the creative process. PM


To nurture creativity, try the following, suggests Alan E. Yue, PMP, PreNetSys, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA:

  • Have an open mind.
  • Listen actively.
  • Appreciate inquisitiveness.
  • Acknowledge and recognize when creative thought is offered.