Creativity and innovation in project management


Where does Creativity Fit in?

Is there room for creativity and innovation within project management?

My goal is to explain the key ways that creativity and innovation can be used to differentiate you as a project manager, advance your career, increase your effectiveness, and transform you into a project hero instead of merely a project manager!

First, a WARNING: This is one of those ‘soft’ project management topics. It does not deal with ‘hard’ content. I will not be mentioning equations, methodologies, formulas, or process diagrams. This subject involves the softer concepts, such as attitude, behavior, enthusiasm, and ideation. Hopefully I can still provide some concrete examples and suggestions to help plant the seed so that you can begin to incorporate these strategies into your day to day project management role. I will include examples and techniques within key project management process areas, where creativity can be extremely valuable.


Creativity and innovation are rare in the field of project management. For example, if you look at an organization as a whole, it is within IT that you are likely to find the most structured, logical, and ‘left brained’ people. Then, if you consider the entire IT department, my observation is that project managers are frequently the most organized, disciplined, and structured resources within IT. I like to call it the left of the left brained population!


Okay class: please take out your textbook; in this case, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (PMI) and turn to the chapter on creativity…I'm still waiting. Okay, instead turn to the chapter on innovation. This is not a topic that has been entertained by Project Management Institute and covered within the ‘official’ body of knowledge.

Creativity and project management are almost like oil and water. They don't mix well! My goal in this paper is to combine those ingredients in a jar, put a lid on that jar, and shake it around for a while to see how well we can combine the two.


I am very interested in the subject of what makes an excellent project manager, as compared with being merely an average project manager. What can differentiate you from other project managers within your organization/project management office (PMO)? Is your career advancing as fast as you would like? Are you ‘asleep at the wheel’ in your career? How can you position yourself so that you are the one who is next in line for a promotion, or so that you are the one moved into executive leadership? The most recognized certification for project managers is the Project Management Professional (PMP)®. The second P in PMP® stands for ‘Professional.’ We are pros! Creativity can be what sets you apart from others, creates demand for your services, and accelerates your career growth.


How do you picture yourself as a project manager? Do you picture yourself as a boring middle manager, attending meetings, and pushing papers and approvals? Are you a ‘pointy haired boss’ or an empty shirt? How are you viewed by others? Are you a robot just mindlessly performing repetitive tasks every day? Are you stagnating in your career?

We need to think of ourselves as leaders! Leadership is what is valuable and badly needed within the project management ranks. I like the term project hero; it's much more exciting telling your kids that you are a project hero, than explaining project management. You are someone who can take a failing project and turn it around, or someone who can steer a massive project, avoid risks, and destroy issues; someone who is the leader of the team, who people want to follow and believe in. Someone who inspires and motivates!

The Cons of Creativity

Now, before I get into specific situations where creativity and innovation are useful, I want to cover the drawbacks and problems that can be encountered when trying to wield creativity within project management situations. I will not say that being creative is always the answer! It is not a silver bullet.

Do not be so creative in your activities that you no longer are performing the role of project manager. The PMBOK® Guide defines the boundaries of what is and what is not project management. It defines the boundaries between the project manager role and other roles such as human resources, for example. If you are constantly doing ‘creative’ tasks, you may be wandering away from project management into other roles. I am advocating performing the role of project manager as defined by the PMBOK® Guide and applying creativity to that. Sometimes an organization may make the deliberate choice to have you perform multiple roles, which can be fine if it is recognized and understood as a conscious choice. Be careful not to use creativity as your excuse to perform quality control or business analysis on an IT project, for example. Or, do not use it as an excuse to wander unknowingly into performing safety compliance within a construction project.


It can be frustrating if every document is ‘creative’ and looks different. There are benefits to standards and consistency. It can be confusing if every document is a creative, one of a kind document, and is not familiar to project stakeholders. It can be a waste of time to constantly be reinventing the wheel, and starting with a blank piece of paper every time you create a document. This is taking innovation and creativity overboard, and can indicate that you are going too far with trying to force creativity on everything.

If you go overboard with creativity, the result is no longer recognizable as project management.

This is my blanket warning that there can be too much of a good thing when it comes to applying creativity to the field of project management.

When and Where to be Creative as a Project Manager

Now that we have gotten the dire warnings and bad news out of the way, I will review the processes within project management, where creativity and innovation can be a valuable tool to enhancing your performance and differentiate yourself.

Communication. Communication is a huge part of project management, and creativity can enhance your communication and improve its effectiveness.


One way to be clear with communication is through the effective use of colors, charts, and pictures to communicate concepts visually. Remember the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words? I liberally sprinkle these types of visualizations in my project communications. Another way to effectively communicate is to be clear and to the point. Use a one-page document for almost everything. If you make a particularly useful observation or argument, but it is tucked into the fifth page of a status report, it will be missed and lose effectiveness. Trust me, in almost any document (almost), no one is reading it word for word (certainly not senior management!). Use a one-page executive summary. Communicating clearly and not obfuscating your point is a form of leadership. A company I used to work for went through an exercise of recreating all of their document templates to be one page long.


An example that proves the point of the current state of creativity within project management is the ‘Stoplight View.’ It is now common to see a green/yellow/red view on status reports. But, to some project managers, even incorporating this allegory was a major step out of their comfort zone. I think the stop light is a good start, it instantly communicates information, but how can we go even further? What are some other possible symbols or images that would communicate something about project status? For example: How about flames for a project in trouble, a finish line for a project that is completing, a road block for a stuck project, or a smiley face for a positive status report?

How about being creative in the method of communication? There are many new technical tools out there to aid in communication. When you sent an email and did not hear back from someone, did you call him or her, walk by his or her desk, or text him or her too? If it is urgent or critical, did you try sitting on the hood of his or her car and waiting for him or her at the end of the day?

Presentations are a form of communication. One creative technique I use is to have my PowerPoint with no (zero) bullet points. I will pick an image that conveys the concept I am trying to communicate in a memorable way. How often are bullets overused, or the audience immediately begins reading the presentation or handouts, and not paying attention to the speaker? Or worse, the presenter reads the bullets to the audience. How many famous or memorable speeches have been accompanied by PowerPoint presentations with bullets?


Meetings are the containers in which a lot of project management is performed. The over-use of meetings and the prevalence of boring meetings within the corporate world are legendary. This can be a great opportunity to use creativity to navigate these waters even more successfully.


Try varying the meeting locations. Hold a meeting outside, have a walking meeting. Go ‘off-site.’ For an agile software development project at my company, I held the daily stand-up meetings on the roof, outside, through the winter. Believe me—we got into a cadence of getting through these meetings quickly owing to the creative locations and conditions.

Sometimes creative techniques are the best ways to keep a meeting on track. It is very common for meetings to get off track, and then not accomplish the goals of the meeting. This can be very frustrating to all who attend. Sometimes, even if you have to be a bit harsh or abrupt, if you keep meetings on task, it will be appreciated. Sometimes I will ‘throw the flag’ if someone goes off track or tries to cover something that has been taken off line. I literally mean ‘throw the flag,’ because I have a yellow football penalty flag in my laptop bag, which I will toss on the conference room table. This usually gets a few laughs, but also makes the point to stay focused.

I like the analogy of ‘running across a frozen pond,’ where if there is a limited time to cover a broad subject, I will say that we have to run across the pond and not stand still in one place too long, or else we will fall through the ice.

Team motivation and rewards. It is very important to keep a team motivated and providing individual recognition or celebrating small team successes can be a great place for creativity. Something that is slightly different from the ‘usual’ can be greatly appreciated. What are some creative ideas that you have seen for rewards and recognition? At my company, they hold an annual fun day and last year, among other activities, it included the opportunity to ride in a hot air balloon or go ‘skeet’ shooting.


Project Hygiene. I like to describe all of the small team member responsibilities, such as entering their time sheets, completing status reports, and tracking task completion as project hygiene. Some companies are great at this and it all gets done on time; in other environments you have to constantly hound people to complete these ‘hygiene’ tasks. It can be quite a drag if you constantly have to hound people or escalate these items. This can be another area where creativity can be very effective for improvement. On one project I implemented the ‘donut criteria,’ which was a metric that I would set at the weekly status meeting. If it was met (such as all status reports completed on time), then I would provide donuts at the next meeting. Then I would change the donut criteria slightly each week, just to keep people engaged.


Food. This is another area where creativity can be very beneficial to a project manager. Get creative with food—don't settle for bringing in pizza again! Advice that I always give to new project managers is that my performance reviews, feedback, and demand for me as a project manager are in direct correlation to the quality of the food that I provide to the project team! Learn this early in your career and you will go places!


Project Issues and Risks. This is an area where creativity can really set a project manager apart from others and lead to greater project success. The cliché is to “think outside the box.” But, truly, are there creative or unconventional ways to resolve a project issue or avoid getting caught up in a major issue? Perhaps part of this ‘creativity’ can be traced to a project manager's insistence to not take no for an answer. Not allowing an issue to come up and derail a project.


Creativity can be useful in avoiding risks and resolving issues, but it can also be a useful skill in communicating risks to project sponsors and triggering action. One project I was on was two weeks away from go-live, and there was a ton of risk. There were too many defects in the system, untested code, and not all training had been delivered. We were headed for a disaster. I called a meeting with the project business owner and said in the meeting that the purpose of the meeting was to write a letter to our customers. We needed to write the letter to our customers, apologizing for how bad the service was due to our project implementation. I asked if we needed to print 1,000 or 10,000 copies of the letter to send out to all of our customers. This got their attention to the severity of the project situation. If a project is going to fail, what have you got to lose?

Tools. Are you being creative with the tools you use for project management? Are you still using the same basic project management tools that you were using 5 or 10 years ago? Are you stagnating? I would say, be creative—adapt or die! Do you still listen to music on a Sony Walkman portable tape deck?


If I could make one recommendation for a tool to introduce into your toolbox, it would be mind-mapping. This will instantly improve your creative “street credibility.” A mind-mapping tool is a great vehicle for creative activity, and is useful for such project management situations as: meeting agendas, scope planning, note taking, presentations, brainstorming, and numerous other occasions.

Job Search. Is it taboo to mention a job search? This is another area where it is critical to differentiate yourself from others and stand out from the crowd. How will your resume get picked out of a stack of 20 resumes? Or 50? I have tried to apply some of these principles to my resume; it is one page long (no one is reading a 3+ page resume!) and also includes a Gantt Chart, six pictures, and a mind map. I am not sure that this resume will guarantee me a job or even an interview, but I am sure that it will be noticed.


Although creativity is a rare attribute for a project manager, it is something that can be very beneficial to making you more effective, more successful, and differentiating yourself from others.

Avoid stagnation. Grow your career. Adapt or die! Be prepared to be a unique and different project manager. Become a leader. Become a project hero!


© 2012 Paul Warner
Originally published as part of the 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Vancouver, BC, Canada



Related Content

  • PM Network

    The Right Fit member content open

    By Scott, Lindsay Project management recruitment professional, Lindsey Scott answers questions about job searching, working on more innovative and digitally driven projects, and earning professional development units…

  • PM Network

    Fast-Forward member content open

    By Patra, Priya Project management practitioner, Priya Patra, offers predictions on what to expect in the project management space 15 years from now (2033).

  • Social media for the project manager member content open

    By Troukens, Kris If you like a particular newspaper today, chances are that this newspaper will no longer be there tomorrow, or that it will only be available online in the future. Indeed, several great newspapers…

  • PM Network

    The social scene member content open

    By Sullivan, John The popularity of social networking through the Internet has given rise to many Web sites--all different in nature and purpose--dedicated to enabling virtual communication. This article discusses…

  • Project Management Quarterly

    A project management case study member content open

    By Bennigson, Lawrence A. A case study of how Eastern Electronics, Inc. selected a program manager to lead a project to create an innovative missile guidance system