The project artist--using innovation and creativity to achieve success

“A culture of innovation can be a company's primary source of competitive advantage and can pay off steadily over the years.”24/7 Innovation: A Blueprint For Surviving and Thriving In An Age of Change (McGraw-Hill, 2002)


Project management has long been perceived as a very disciplined, task oriented approach to getting things done. Most people see a project manager (PM) as the person who makes sure other people complete activities, schedule and manage endless meetings, force people to make detailed plans, and keep track of everything associated with a project. Basically that is what PMs do, but there is much more. Most people, especially senior management, sometimes don't understand the complexity of the PM role or the need for creativity and innovation to meet the objectives of the project. PMs are continually challenged with changing organizational priorities, customer requirements changes, resource shortages, competition with other projects and economic uncertainties, just to name a few. Maintaining a creative edge is extremely important to meet these challenges and overcome the many barriers that are experienced throughout the project life cycle. This paper focuses on the “10th knowledge area” of project management – Creative and Innovative Management. Creativity and innovation are crucial not only to project success but to organizational sustainability as well, and there is a need for PMs to examine their creative skills and ability to solve issues and develop solutions quickly and effectively. It has become a project management imperative to strengthen individual and team creative abilities to ensure continued organizational growth and leadership within the business community.

Project management, for many, simply means to complete a series of tasks and achieve a set of objectives that have been developed by someone else. In some organizations, project management is actually perceived as something that gets in the way of completing an objective. When project management is discussed, the focus is usually about schedules, scope, budgets, risk, communications, and requirements. Creativity and innovation are words that are not generally found in project management literature or used during project status meetings or when providing information to stakeholders. Project managers seem to speak a language that is only understood by other project managers. Creativity seems to be associated with marketing managers, sales people, artists, musicians, authors, and architects. What may not be apparent to the average project stakeholder is that a PM and project team are challenged everyday with new issues, surprises, customer generated changes, sudden shifts in priorities by executives, disagreements between business groups, uncooperative functional managers, and impossible demands. Customers often disregard processes and agreed upon control procedures, and many of the people a project manager must deal with on a day-to-day basis can be described in one word: difficult. This challenging environment is a driving force behind the need for PMs and project teams to use creative thinking and innovation to complete assignments and meet the needs of stakeholders.

Creativity and innovation are actually extremely important at the enterprise level. Solid growth and organizational sustainability depend on new ideas. Organizations should encourage and nurture profitable innovation, a continuing process in which new ideas are generated, business models are enhanced and revised, new markets are discovered and new products are designed and launched. It is important for managers and executives to develop a work force or employee base of creative thinkers, who generate new ideas each day. Within that continual flow of ideas can be found many unique and potentially profitable suggestions.

“The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” – Thomas Edison

“An idea is a dangerous thing when it's the only one you have!” – Roger von Oech

Every organization needs some rules, processes, and standards. These are necessary for safety reasons, managing expenses, maintaining some consistency in quality levels, complying with government regulations, etc. The problem with rules is that they sometimes become outdated or no longer apply to the organization's operations, and sometimes they get in the way of progress. A quote from the mid-80s, popular among managers and executives, was: “Break all the rules.” To do that literally could result in serious consequences. The idea was to challenge existing rules to determine if they were helping or hindering progress. Asking “Why?” is a good start. Many five year olds ask their parents that question hundreds of times a day. Why? Because they want to know how things work or why people do the things they do. As we get older we seem to ask fewer questions. PMs should encourage their team members to challenge methods and procedures, and look for better and more efficient ways of accomplishing project activities.

M. A. Rosanoff: “Mr. Edison, please tell me what laboratory rules you want me to observe.” Edison: “There ain't no rules around here. We're trying to accomplish somep'n!”

“When all think alike, then no one is thinking.”– Walter Lippmann

“Creativity, as has been said, consists largely of rearranging what we know in order to find out what we do not know. Hence, to think creatively, we must be able to look afresh at what we normally take for granted.” – George Kneller

Most PMs will agree that the world is continually changing, such as new technology, new methods of travel, new products, and even new language based on Internet chat (example, LOL or laugh out loud). New products and new ways of doing something are the result of creative thought, sometimes from an individual and sometimes from a team of people. Creativity is actually a basic ingredient in the search for improved processes, solving problems, and finding better ways to complete assignments. In fact, without some creative thought, life itself would be very bland. In the project environment, creativity plays an important part in completing the project. With tight schedules, limited funding, and a lack needed resources, the project manager and project team must become entrepreneurs and innovators to complete the project objectives and meet stakeholder expectations. This requires creativity, a skill that should be included in the description of an effective leader as well as encouraged and developed within a project team.

When you think about creative people, who come to mind? Is it artists, musicians, magicians, craftsmen, home decorators, clothing designers, and architects? These people are certainly creative and their livelihood depends on it. What about project managers? Think about your past experiences. Have you ever had to find a solution to a problem or develop a workaround in response to an unplanned event? Do you remember the solution and how you arrived at it? Although many people consider themselves as not being very creative, the fact is, we are all creative people and just need something to set the process in motion.

In his book, A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative, Roger von Oech (1998) provides some thoughts about how you can be more creative. He starts by asking the following questions:

  • When was the last time you had a creative idea?
  • What was it?
  • What motivates you to be creative?

Think about those questions and answer them to yourself. If you look at your environment and believe that everything is fine, there is no reason to change what has worked in the past. If all the rules in place are acceptable, not much will happen in terms of change or development. So why is creativity needed? There are several reasons, two specific reasons among many have been provided in von Oech's book (p. 5):

  1. Change. If change occurs, new information comes into existence.
  2. We can't solve today's problems with yesterday's solutions. We need to look for fresh solutions to new problems.

Lessons learned certainly have their value but it is important to combine those lessons learned with new ideas so we can continue to move forward. Creativity can also add fun to the project environment. Generating ideas to solve a problem, improve a process, or create a new product can be very enjoyable and help to build the team while improving the work environment. As with projects, ideas have life cycles. They are born, then developed, modified, executed, and eventually live out their useful life. Therefore, creative thinking is necessary to keep a fresh supply of ideas on hand. As von Oech says, knowledge is the stuff from which new ideas are born so project leaders should continue to increase their knowledge about all facets of their business and then look beyond to other areas. (p. 6)Sometimes knowledge about a subject unrelated to the project you are working on can actually stimulate new ways of thinking. Here's an example. I was reviewing a book about emergency medical training. I reviewed the triage and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) processes and techniques and from those techniques I developed a presentation titled “CPR for IT Projects” or Critical Path Resuscitation. I used the techniques of emergency treatment for patients to explain how to get a troubled project on the road to recovery. According to von Oech, “Discovery consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else and thinking something different.”

Von Oech also offers many ways to become more creative but there is one thought he mentions that we should always keep in mind: look for the second right answer. There are always alternatives to a situation, so ask the “what if” questions. Don't be afraid to sound a little silly. A great idea may be just waiting to jump out.

In his book, von Oech discusses what he calls mental locks, things that prevent us from being creative. These mental locks are (p. 9–10):

  • The right answer (thinking that there is only one).
  • Always being logical,
  • Follow the rules,
  • Be practical,
  • Play is Frivolous,
  • That's not my area (or job),
  • Avoid ambiguity,
  • Don't be foolish,
  • To err is wrong, and
  • I'm not creative.

Each of these mental locks can prevent us from developing that much needed new technique, solving that persistent problem, improving how work is done, or meeting a customer expectation. In addition to these mental locks, PMs and teams can “murder” creativity by using phrases that we are all familiar with:

  1. We never did it that way,
  2. This is how we do things around here,
  3. We don't have time for that,
  4. I'll get back to you,
  5. We will do it this way,
  6. My way or the highway,
  7. Would you bet your job on that,
  8. You're kidding, right,
  9. Not a chance,
  10. Dream on,
  11. There is only one right answer, and
  12. Always follow the rules.

As a PM and leader, it is our job to observe the action, look for opportunities, and work with our teams to resolve issues so we can complete our assignments successfully. Creativity is part of the job, and we owe it to ourselves, our teams, and our customers to continue to develop our creative edge.

Establishing an environment of innovation and creativity requires some stimulation. Creative thought can be encouraged by:

1. Encouraging team members to associate with diverse individuals,

2. Inviting guests to project meetings,

3. Asking children to comment on an idea,

4. Exercising – a brisk walk or mid afternoon jog,

5. Relax for a few minutes each day in a quiet area,

6. Take a beginner's point of view,

7. Don't judge anything too quickly,

8. Go to a bookstore and read book titles,

9. Let go of assumptions, and

10. Have a meeting in a park or by poolside.

Many people think of great ideas several times a day. These ideas develop during moments of relaxation or when we are not thinking about stressful situations that have occurred or may occur. When we are in moments of “present mindedness,” our brain is allowed to sort through information, retrieve data, organize thoughts, and develop solutions. These moments only last for brief periods of time so capture your ideas when they are hot so you can review them later. Keep a notebook, sketchpad, or some type of recording device with you whenever possible. Your creative ideas sometimes only last for an instant and then they are replaced with the reality of everyday stress or routines. A few brief words in a notebook or some simple sketches will help you bring your ideas to life and develop them to their greatest potential.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” – Albert Einstein, On Science

“The uncreative mind can spot wrong answers, but it takes a very creative mind to spot wrong questions.” – Sir Antony Jay

The Chinese characters that make up the verb “to listen”

Figure 1.1 The Chinese characters that make up the verb “to listen”

Creativity and Listening

Project managers are, in fact, leaders, and leaders must develop very strong listening skills. The Chinese characters that make up the verb “to listen” tell us something significant about the skill. “A King, in order to be a true leader, must listen with ears, eyes, and heart … giving undivided attention to the people.” (Bright, G. Bright Quotes)

The ability to listen allows the PM to appreciate the views of others, avoid making premature judgments, and consider alternatives that may be more effective and efficient when dealing with a problem. Listening provides the opportunity to learn and also demonstrates respect for others who have ideas they wish to share. Listening is probably the most important part of the communication process and probably the one skill everyone needs to improve the most. In a book titled, Don't Squat With Yer Spurs On! A Cowboy's Guide to Life, that I found in a Texas airport, there is a quote about listening that states very simply, the obvious: “We have two ears and one mouth so listen twice as much as you talk.” (Bender, 2000, p 31, 96) Pretty good cowboy wisdom!”

Enjoy the process of creating and innovating

The key to creativity is not to focus on the result. The result will come at some point during the process. The process itself may take you through several paths and trials. It's all about the flow. Allow yourself and the team to become part of the flow. Breaking the flow to see how you are doing will delay the process and may negatively affect the creative energy of the team. Creativity means letting your imagination go. See where it takes you. Sometimes the creative process results in a large number of ideas that can be combined into a few great ones. Or one wild idea can lead to a breakthrough that is completely logical.

“If opportunity doesn't knock, build a door.” – Milton Berle

Creativity and innovation are part of the project manager's job. Encouraging team members to be creative requires some creativity and ingenuity in itself. Project management is based on logic and planning. There is no question about that. But sometimes logic should be challenged because there may be a much better method lurking just underneath the surface of what appears to be a well-defined plan. Ask “what if” questions, take creativity breaks, and ask for input from people who are not involved in your project. Look at things from a completely different perspective, look for that second right answer, and don't be too quick to judge what might seem to be an “off the wall” idea. Many of our most important discoveries came from what people thought of as silly or foolish ideas.

“Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.” – Albert von Szent-Györgyi (Good, I. 1962)


Bender, T. B. (2000) Don't Squat With Yer Spurs On! – A Cowboy's Guide To Life. Layton, UT: Gibb Smith, Publisher.

Bright, G.M. (2009) Bright Quotes Retrieved from

Good, I. (1962) The Scientist Speculates Retreived from

Harman, W. & Howard R. (1984) Higher Creativity – Liberating the Unconscious for Breakthrough Insights. New York:Jeremy T. Tarcher/Putmun.

Michalko, M. (2006) Thinkertoys: A handbook for creative-thinking techniques. Berkeley, CA:Ten Speed Press.

von Oech, R. (1998) A Whack on the Side of the Head: How can you be more creative. New York:Warner Books Inc.

© 2009, Frank P. Saladis, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando Fl. North America



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