Project Management Institute


Vinton Cerf, Senior Vice President Technology Strategy, MCI, Ashburn, Va., USA

Vinton Cerf,
Senior Vice President Technology Strategy, MCI, Ashburn, Va., USA



In the business world, needs change, technology changes and economics changes. Survival means adapting to change and maintaining a creative outlook in the never-ending search for new ways to solve customer problems and respond to customer needs. Firms invent new ideas and concepts, sometimes by taking old notions and thinking about them in new ways or juxtaposing concepts from different disciplines and asking how they might relate. Creativity means openness to the ideas of others and a passion for exploring the unconventional.

Developing new products often requires substantial management effort. One big challenge for program managers is meeting deadlines on time and within budget. One of the most creative efforts along these lines produced the 1997 Pathfinder mission to Mars and the follow-on Mars Exploration Rovers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The teams producing these remarkable instruments overcame many obstacles, not the least of which is slowing the arriving lander from 12,000 mph (19,312 kph) to under 100 mph (161 kph) in just a couple of minutes without destroying the payload.

The project managers in the JPL Mars Exploration effort had hard deadlines for launch—celestial mechanics is an unforgiving taskmaster! To beat the clock, problems had to be solved in parallel. Weight limitations, constraints on the size and format of the equipment and instruments, power limitations and many other challenges required unconventional thinking and willingness to rethink solutions that might already have been adopted.

Creativity is not something one learns as much as it is an attitude one maintains. Moreover, creativity is not something that happens on schedule.

Managing truly creative people is a challenge all by itself. They are often unconventional. They may work odd hours and employ a variety of tricks to stimulate their uncommon approach to problems. A good project manager will work hard to shield creative talent from pedestrian requirements, while keeping the team focused on critical milestones.

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