Project Management Institute

Brain Stormers

Creativity Is In Demand—And It Can Be Cultivated

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BY RACHEL BERTSCHE

ILLUSTRATION BY EMMANUEL POLANCO

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Creativity is no longer just the province of artists, writers and musicians. Organizations grappling with rapid technological change and sudden strategic challenges—which is to say, most—see it as a survival skill. According to a 2017 PwC report, CEOs rank creativity as one of the top five most important skills in an employee. And 77 percent of them say it's difficult to recruit individuals who excel at creative and innovative thinking.

CEOS RANK CREATIVITY AS ONE OF THE TOP FIVE MOST IMPORTANT EMPLOYEE SKILLS.

Source: PwC

Project managers are getting the message that creativity can help them stand apart from the pack. Things like schedule, stakeholder and risk management remain must-have skills, but to gain a competitive edge in today's business landscape, organizations need project managers who can see fresh ways of getting things done while navigating complexity.

The new breed of project and program managers gains a range of experience across multiple domains, such as data and analytics, technology and disruptive innovations, says Nitin Nandrajog, global strategy, innovation and project management office (PMO) head, PMI Global Executive Council member KPMG, New Delhi, India. This broader background ultimately helps teams find fresh solutions. “Creative project managers approach the job of project management as a business consultant, drawing parallels from not only other projects but other industries to help the team arrive at a solution,” he says.

The good news is that contrary to conventional wisdom, creativity isn't just innate—and organizations can cultivate the trait among project managers.

So what do creative project managers look like? They are consummate problem-solvers with the ability to handle whatever crops up, whether it's scope creep, schedule changes or resource constraints, says Niusha F. Moore, manager, program management, Amazon Logistics, Luxembourg City, Luxembourg. “What distinguishes creative project managers is an ability to find solutions despite obstacles and constraints, versus just raising a red flag,” she says.

For instance, when one of her company's projects wasn't able to launch globally because of translation delays, the project team opted to launch in English-language countries first—where the majority of the company's customers were. The team launched in other countries later. “The project manager on my team didn't allow this to delay the whole project,” she says.

Another mark of creative project professionals is openness and flexibility. They aren't married to one way of doing things. Traditional thinkers often have a one-track mind: Their approaches tend to be based only on what worked in previous projects.

“The distinguishing feature that sets creative project managers apart from traditional thinkers is that they work right to left—meaning they start with the end in mind and work back through a series of possible solutions to find the best way forward,” says Andy Almenara, manager, PMO and operations excellence, Special Broadcasting Service, Sydney, Australia. “Traditional thinkers are more inclined to preload what they believe to be the solution and then anchor their thinking to that, rather than remaining open to an array of possibilities.”

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“Creative project managers approach the job of project management as a business consultant.”

—Nitin Nandrajog, KPMG, New Delhi, India

These creative project types also buck the stereotype of the typical isolated artist. Projects are intrinsically collaborative, and creative project managers are adept at leveraging relationships to create solutions, Mr. Almenara says. “Whenever they convene their team, they're looking for opportunities to solicit creative ideas. By asking the right questions of the right people, they unlock new ways of thinking.”

THINK DIFFERENTLY

Creativity isn't just a talent you're born with. Here are four tips to see projects from new angles.

1 DIVERSIFY. Study industries outside your own, and get to know areas of the business you don't normally work with. “The more exposure you have had to other perspectives within a business, the more likely you are to explore solutions from multiple angles,” says Andy Almenara, manager, project management office (PMO) and operations excellence, Special Broadcasting Service, Sydney, Australia.
2 HIT THE BOOKS. “Veteran project managers should sign up for courses on creative and innovative thinking in order to change their perspective on traditional project management,” says Nitin Nandrajog, global strategy, innovation and PMO head, KPMG, New Delhi, India.
3 COLLABORATE. Creative thinkers take advantage of the resources at their disposal, and the most vital resources any project manager has are people. So “leverage the range of subject matter expertise around you in order to derive the best possible outcome,” Mr. Almenara says.
4 DON'T FEAR FAILURE. “Acknowledge that mistakes are going to happen,” says Christopher Burner, chief project officer, Metro Gold Line Foothill Extension Construction Authority, Pasadena, California, USA. “Once you've given yourself permission to fail, you'll feel free to try even your most out-there idea.”

Technology projects provide an excellent opportunity to challenge the status quo. For instance, when new business systems are simply retrofitted to match current functionality, teams are missing a chance to utilize new features that drive business process innovation. “The focus needs to be equally on what is possible rather than just on what is required,” Mr. Almenara says. “This can only be achieved by project teams truly partnering with stakeholders to bridge the gap between business need and technical opportunity.”

THE CREATIVITY GAP

These days nearly everybody from the C-suite on down is looking for creative sparks.

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77% of CEOs say recruiting employees with creativity is difficult.

Sources: State of Create, Adobe, 2016; 20th CEO Survey, PwC, 2017

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“What distinguishes creative project managers is an ability to find solutions despite obstacles and constraints.”

—Niusha F. Moore, Amazon Logistics, Luxembourg City, Luxembourg

FOSTERING CREATIVITY

If organizations know what they're looking for when it comes to creativity, how do they find the right talent? Mr. Nandrajog says he looks for certain things during the project manager hiring process, specifically: “candidates who are good with business analysis and who have good understanding of technology tools that specifically enable collaboration.”

For instance, having good business analysis skills helps a team member to more creatively present data using visualization and graphics for reporting, he says. People with these skills also tend to “have an understanding of how to use collaborative tools, which helps them to crowdsource solutions, build relations across stakeholders and communicate more effectively,” he says.

A diverse professional background is another indicator that a project manager might think creatively, Mr. Almenara says. “I look for variety in roles and industries, which typically brings with it diversity of thought,” he says. “This can indicate the candidate isn't afraid to take themselves out of a comfort zone and try new things.”

And while a candidate's showcasing of previous successes can prove a track record, it doesn't really speak to his or her creative thinking. After all, if everything goes according to plan, there isn't much need to tap into creativity. When trying to identify creative professionals during the hiring process, go deeper. Ms. Moore says she looks for “examples of how someone failed at one stage but was able to learn from it and succeed at the next stage of the project.”

To encourage creativity among existing employees, project leaders say it's crucial to create an environment that supports experimentation—and, by extension, risk. “Let your team know it is okay if they fail or make mistakes, as long as it is not done in a reckless way and it is not a fatal mistake,” says Christopher Burner, chief project officer, Metro Gold Line Foothill Extension Construction Authority, Pasadena, California, USA. “Providing that kind of environment, and not beating team members up for every error, makes them feel more comfortable with being creative.”

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“[C]reative project managers … start with the end in mind and work back through a series of possible solutions to find the best way forward.”

—Andy Almenara, Special Broadcasting Service, Sydney, Australia

In Mr. Burner's organization, this “safe space” idea starts at the top. “The CEO of our organization has made clear to me that making a reasonable mistake is okay, but it needs to be corrected quickly once identified. I do the same with my team, and as a result I see people creatively completing very complex projects within budget, schedule and quality parameters.”

For instance, when Mr. Burner served as project manager for a recent 11.3-mile (18.2-kilometer) light rail project in the Los Angeles area, his team discovered that none of the 800-foot-long (243.8-meter-long) welded rail sticks could be moved in the traditional way—over the newly constructed track to the end of the project area. So the team decided to cut the long rails into 40-foot (12.2-meter) sticks, deliver them by truck to the site and then weld the pieces back to 800-foot (243.8-meter) sticks—all of which ensured the line could open on time last year.

“This decision cost approximately US$250,000, but it allowed the project to be completed on time and save significantly more money in the end by avoiding a substantial project delay,” Mr. Burner says.

Failure can also be the catalyst that causes veteran project managers to move beyond ingrained work habits and become more creative. Pushing people to be more comfortable with veering away from the plan “is tough, no doubt about it,” Ms. Moore says. “I often find that by letting our more experienced project managers make some mistakes, they realize they have to make some changes to succeed.”

Mr. Nandrajog says he's had success training longtime project professionals to think differently. KPMG offers regular training to develop problem-solving skills and encourage the use of collaborative tools and techniques, including crowdsourcing solutions from a community of experts on innovation. And the organization tries to expand project managers’ experience to build a broad and more creative mindset. “We encourage people to work on projects that belong to the new-age economy, including blockchain, robotics automation and e-commerce,” he says.

The payoffs to grooming talent in these ways have become clear.

“With creative project managers, the teams on the client side recognize their value to not only manage projects efficiently, but also be a trusted adviser who can solve business problems with fresh thinking and innovative approaches,” Mr. Nandrajog says. That leads to repeat business from clients—who in many cases are retained by the client organization on multiple projects. “They're complimented for creatively getting things done.” PM

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.

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