Job Skills—Cultivating Creativity

Transcript

Narrator

The future of project management is changing fast. On Projectified™ with PMI, we’ll help you stay on top of the trends and see what’s really ahead for the profession—and your career.

For an easy way to stay up to date on Projectified™ with PMI, go to iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play music or PMI.org/podcast.

Stephen W. Maye

Hello, I'm Stephen Maye, and this is Projectified™ with PMI. I'm here with my co-host, Tegan Jones, and in this episode we're talking about creativity. More specifically, we’re talking about how leaders can spark and sustain creativity on their project teams.

Whether you’re designing a video game or producing an advertising campaign, creative work comes with the same types of deadlines you’d see on any project. But creativity isn’t necessarily a skill you can call up on demand.

While creative teams need structure and timelines as much as anyone, they also require a greater degree of flexibility in order to produce the best possible results. 

Tegan Jones

And part of that is just because creativity is so subjective. When you’re upgrading a network or building a road, you generally know what the end product is supposed to look like. There might be changes to the plan along the way, but you’re probably not gonna build a road and then have your stakeholders come back and say, “Oh, we actually wanted a tunnel.” But with creative work, that happens a lot. It’s pretty easy for a decision-maker to come in late in the process and say something like, “Oh, this just isn’t working for me.”

Stephen W. Maye

That’s tough, because you want to make sure everyone is on the same page as early as possible, but you also want to avoid what you might call ‘creativity by committee.’ You have to give your core project team the freedom to be bold and head in a new direction if you want a truly creative outcome.

Tegan Jones

That can feel a little bit risky, but it can also produce some really valuable results.

McKinsey recently tried to quantify some of that value by creating an index that they call the Award Creativity Score, which ranks marketing and advertising agencies based how creative they are. And they define that ranking by the number of Cannes Lions awards the agencies have won over the past 15 years. And McKinsey found that the most creative firms—so those that scored in the top quartile—also performed better financially: 67 percent had above-average organic revenue growth, and 70 percent had above-average total return to shareholders.

Stephen W. Maye

That’s a pretty significant distinction, and it makes sense that you’d see that kind of split in a field like marketing or advertising, where creativity is really the product that they sell. But it’d be interesting to see what these firms do that more traditional project teams might be able to take and adapt to their work.

Tegan Jones

Well, one thing that top performers did differently was actually build creativity and innovation into the daily process, rather than just trying to fit it in around other work. So, basically, when companies and executives were willing to make creativity a priority, teams felt more empowered to spend quality time on creative work.

Another success factor was that these firms were really focused on understanding the unique needs and interests of their target audience. They were totally obsessed with knowing their customers.

Stephen W. Maye

I love this idea of building creativity and innovation into the daily process or the daily routine. It reminds me of conversations we had some time ago with Scott Berkun. Scott writes and speaks on these topics and has a big focus on creativity. And he’s a little bit of a contrarian sometimes. He breaks it down to this idea of creativity being about identifying the problem that you’re trying to solve, and then just doing the really hard work of solving it. 

Now, you’ve been looking at the research and talking to people who lead creative projects and creative work. How does that resonate with what you’ve been learning?

Tegan Jones

I do think that there’s something to this idea of making sure that you’re putting in the time to understand your market and to stay on top of things as they change. 

I don’t think creativity is necessarily something you can just power through. But if you don’t have that knowledge available to you, you’re not going to come up with the most creative solution for your audience.

If you look at the McKinsey report, they found that rapid decision-making and adapting to early market signals were actually two additional factors that set the creative leaders apart from the rest.

Stephen W. Maye

Creative work, like so many other project types, often needs to move very quickly. And that can put a lot of pressure on project teams. This is something our featured guest, Mike Tenney, has to deal with on a daily basis in his work for the media company Nickelodeon. Mike is a senior director of creative project management and manages marketing for the Kids’ Choice Awards and Kids’ Choice Sports.

He had a lot to say about what it takes to produce something that your audience will love on a tight deadline—without stressing out your team in the process. So we’ll hear from him a little later in the show.

Tegan Jones

We’re also going to discuss how to inspire creativity in people who do not think of themselves as creative. Todd Henry is the host of a podcast called The Accidental Creative, and he’s also the author of the book, Herding Tigers. And he is going to join us to talk about how project leaders can push people to think outside of the box. 

But first let’s hear from Ahmed Bahaa, who is the managing director at Hive Studio, a creative agency based in Cairo, Egypt. He had some great tips on what it takes to cultivate that type of “always on” creative culture that really helps teams do high-quality work on a quick turnaround.

Stephen W. Maye

Well, creativity definitely seems to come more naturally when it’s part of the daily routine. Let’s hear how Ahmed makes that happen.

[musical transition]
Tegan Jones

Hive Studio’s client roster boasts some of the world’s most recognizable brands. Toyota, Red Bull, Nestlé and L’Oreal are just a few of the global companies that look to Hive for digital creative that will set them apart.

But brilliant marketing campaigns aren’t created in a vacuum. Hive’s managing director Ahmed Bahaa, says it’s his job to foster an environment that cultivates a creative mindset.

Ahmed Bahaa

First, to maintain this creativity work at the accepted threshold, we always keep the environment very friendly, the environment very easy-going. For example, we are making a lot of outing, even if we are working. We stay in a hotel, for example, over the pool, make a brainstorming session. Just to keep the stress away from the team as we can. 

Tegan Jones

One way Ahmed reduces stress is by rewarding creative risk-taking—even when daring ideas don’t pay off.

Ahmed Bahaa

We can make a very great idea and it is not accepted by the client. So we even may make prizes for certain creative, because of creating this idea. Because we fully assure that it is a very, very great idea, but it is not suitable for that client.

Tegan Jones

Treating each team member as an individual is another way Ahmed supports creative thinking. He works hard to accommodate personal work preferences because, he says, when people are comfortable, they’re more likely to be inspired.

Ahmed Bahaa

We have one of our creative team. He has a lot, a lot of great ideas and he is very, very creative. But he is not the best one to work in a team. He, a lot of times, likes to work alone. We can just let him travel in any place he need and just to stay alone and think of whatever he wants, just to be in the most stable state that he can make creative ideas in it.

Tegan Jones

For younger team members, the bigger challenge is just getting them to come out of their shells. So Ahmed builds their confidence by encouraging them to bring all their ideas to the table—even if they’re not fully formed.

Ahmed Bahaa

In general, we find that most than 80 percent of the fresh graduates, they maybe say just 30 or 40 percent of the ideas they had, because they afraid so much of being dis-encouraged or feel that they are like, saying silly ideas or something like this, which is, from our point of view as a creative agency, maybe a silly idea, but it may be a very, very helpful campaign if we make it.

So I think this is the most important thing to let people be confident about themself and their ideas, and their thinking. I think dis-appreciation and dis-understanding for their needs is a main creativity killer for anyone working in any field of business. 

[musical transition]
Stephen W. Maye

Ahmed made a good point about how you really need to know your team. People have different creative work styles, and project managers are going to deliver better results if they accommodate those preferences as much as possible.

Tegan Jones

Custom-tailoring a process for just one or two people can definitely be a hassle, but sometimes it’s the people who need to think and work differently that come up with the most out-of-the-box, creative ideas.

Stephen W. Maye

It takes really intentional leadership to offer that type of flexibility though, and that’s something Todd Henry talks about in his book, Herding Tigers. Todd is also the host of a podcast called The Accidental Creative, and we recently spoke to him about how managers can get their teams to move out of their comfort zones and try something new.

Tegan Jones

If you can make it happen, it’s just so worth it. Let’s hear from Todd now.

[musical transition]
Todd Henry

I think there’s sometimes a misunderstanding about creativity. I think sometimes people think, “Well, I’m not creative”—and by “I’m not creative” what they mean is “I’m not an artist.” Right? I’m not one of those people, the creatives, the designers, the writers, the people who are doing these unbelievable things I can’t even fathom. But the reality is that creativity is nothing more than problem-solving.

And so I think the first challenge that I always have to overcome with people is helping them understand: you are creative.

There are multiple creative thinking types. There are what I call ‘fast twitch people.’ These are the people that, you know, they walk into a group brainstorm session and they spout off ten ideas in the first 15 seconds, and they make everybody else feel really stupid. And then there are ‘slow twitch people.’ And slow twitch people are the people who might take, you know, maybe ten, 15, 20 minutes to warm up, or maybe take like a day or two.

You know, maybe they don’t come up with any ideas in the midst of the brainstorm, and then, you know, two days later they come to your office and they say, “Hey, I’ve got, um, I’ve got an idea—and it’s like, the best thing you’ve ever heard.” It’s just that they’re a slow twitch creative, so it takes them time sometimes to generate those ideas.

So instead of just getting everybody in the room and saying, “Who has ideas,” which favors the fast twitch people, my recommendation is: assign a problem ahead of time, give people a couple of days to think about it and then tell them to come with their best two to three ideas. I find that to be a much more effective process. 

A great creative process is intentionally led. And this is especially true when it comes to the two things that creative people primarily need from an organization in order to thrive.

The first thing they need is stability. Stability is about having clarity of process, clarity of expectations, ensuring that there’s some stable ground beneath them. If you want people to take creative risks—to try new things, to experiment, to ask dangerous questions—then you need to provide them with a stable environment in which to do that.

But the second thing that creative people need from their organization is challenge. They need to be pushed. They want to try new things. They want to experiment, and take risks, and venture out onto the edges of their capabilities. They want to know that their manager sees them, and knows them, and believes in them, and is pushing them to try new things.

A lot of organizations that I encounter, they’re constantly re-litigating decisions. So they’ll get to a critical moment in the process and they’ll say, ”Okay, well here’s the decision.” And then two weeks later, after people have done two weeks of work on that project, they’ll say, “Well, let’s go back and let’s talk about this again. Are we really doing the right thing? Is this really the right decision?”

And that is death to a creative team, because people think, “Well, I’ve just spent two weeks pouring myself into this and now you’re telling me you’re not really sure? How does that work?” So if you’re not willing to take the first risk as a leader, you can’t expect your team to be taking bold, creative risks in the process.

I believe the most critical part of our role as a leader of a creative process is to ensure that we have established those checkpoints and those milestones and that we are advocating for our team and securing buy-in at those critical moments. We can never afford, as a leader, to allow the reason for our changing of direction to be because somebody wasn’t fully intellectually engaged at the critical moment.

[musical transition]
Stephen W. Maye

I really liked that distinction that Todd made at the end: Changes will come up on any project, but it’s the project manager’s job to make sure that none of those changes could have been avoided simply by applying better communication upfront.

Tegan Jones

That might seem super basic, but this is a major challenge for creative teams. I recently took a look at a survey from InSource, which is a nonprofit trade association for in-house creatives in the U.S., and that survey found that two thirds of creative professionals said it was either difficult or very difficult to obtain the information they need to begin a new project. 

Stephen W. Maye

And confusion is definitely a creativity killer. This is something I recently discussed with Mike Tenney, who is a senior director of creative project management for Nickelodeon in New York. He talked about how leaders can start a creative project off strong—and minimize the risk of last-minute surprises.

Tegan Jones

Nickelodeon has set a pretty high bar for creativity, so I’m interested to pull back the curtain a bit. Let’s hear what Mike has to say.

[musical transition]
Stephen W. Maye

Well, Mike, it is so great to have you here today. Could you start by explaining a little about your role at Nickelodeon? And specifically, give us an idea of the kinds of projects or an example of the types of projects that your team manages there.

Mike Tenney

Sure. Well it’s great to be here, Stephen. Thanks so much for having me. My role at Nick is really mainly focused on managing the creative marketing campaigns for Nickelodeon’s live event specials. So that includes things like the Kids’ Choice Awards and Kids’ Choice Sports, both of which are huge annual events in kid culture.

And these events, they have a lot of moving parts, and my role is two-fold. From a big picture level I serve as a central point of contact between groups really to drive the workflows and the timelines for our creative marketing campaigns surrounding these events. And then as these events touch really every group within the organization, being the hub for this, it really helps ensure that everyone is in lockstep at every step throughout the campaign roadmap. So that’s everything from topline creative development through execution and into final delivery. 

Now, from a granular level, my team they oversee 360 creative project management for all creative deliverables in support of these events. So that ranges everything from on-air and off-channel video creative, social creative, interactive digital experiences, out of home experiential and brand design.

Stephen W. Maye

You’re leading what we are calling creative project management and I’m assuming there are some differences there between that work and what we often think of as more traditional project management. What would be some of the ways you’d characterize those differences?

Mike Tenney

Well, I’d have to give this answer in a little bit of a bubble since I only have experience in creative project management. But creative project management, it’s really open for interpretation and there’s not really a one-size-fits-all job description for what creative project management is, or even how to manage your creative project.

And with that, no two projects are ever the same, so what worked well on one project might not work at all for another project. Now, in my role I really need to have an understanding about all types of creatives, so that ranges everything from video and social creative all the way to digital and photo shoots and everything in between that the creative team might touch. And I need to come up with solutions to determine the most effective way to navigate from point A to point Z without compromising the creative.

With all of this it really requires creative managers to have a strong sense of how to manage creative assets but also how to deal with creative teams. So that’s figuring out what questions to ask, how to effectively communicate with teams, and especially when you are providing feedback, how to make sure everything seems objective and not subjective—because creative really is a subjective category—and make sure everything is clear and actionable.

Stephen W. Maye

What are some of the factors that influence the level of creativity that team members are able to bring to the table in that kind of a project?

Mike Tenney

I would think that having all of the information, as early as possible in the project, is essential for the creative team. So things like due dates and budgets and stakeholders and figuring out what we can do, what things we can’t do, having these types of questions answered as early as possible, they really help impact the level of creativity that the creative team can bring to the table. And having enough time—obviously that’s on any project—really is important in a creative world because the creative team needs to go through many rounds of brainstorming and activating a project and figuring out how to make the project work.

Stephen W. Maye

How does the project management process help teams actually deliver more creative work?

Mike Tenney

I think that the project management team, the biggest thing that we can bring to the table is asking questions as early as possible. I ask a ton of questions, and it’s really not just for my own benefit. I know that if I have these questions, someone else down the line might have them too. So I really, my goal is to always get ahead of things and ask as many questions at the outset of the project.

And it really allows the creative teams, when they hear these questions and we start talking about them, they get a big picture understanding of the project, and not only understand the topline goals, but they also understand all the moving parts of the assignment.

I also find that the more inclusive I am—the more that I connect creative teams with stakeholders and clients—the more effective I am. Because when I approach it from that angle, I get buy-in. I get investment from all the groups. And that really leads to stronger collaboration.

I’m really connected very closely with our creative teams. I’m often embedded within the team itself. So I’m speaking to these creative teams hourly and throughout the entire project, so I’m always there to help come up with the best production strategy necessary to deliver what their vision is.

And separately, I try to be very transparent at every step of the way—anything about approvals, schedules, anything logistics like that. By doing this it really minimizes the risk of last-minute surprises.

Stephen W. Maye

I love it. I love this idea of intentionally playing this role of keeping the creative teams connected with the relevant stakeholders. Have you found any particular techniques or approaches that you tend to reuse to do that well?

Mike Tenney

I mean for me, it’s getting everybody in a room and talking things through. You know, we use humor a lot at Nickelodeon, so our meetings are funny. We have a good time. So doing things in a room and having all people that are genuine and great in a room together and talking things through, it really brings energy to the project.

And it took me a while to figure that out. Once I was able to take a step back and realize that the projects that didn’t go so well that I had been on were when I served as the only communicator, it made me realize that I had to open it up and I had to make this a team effort. Because once I got the team involved and once I was able to get buy-in and investment and make sure that everybody felt like they owned part of the project, then it really helped my projects move a lot faster and move a lot more streamlined.

Stephen W. Maye

What do you find to be some of the creativity killers? Those things—either habits or ways of thinking—that stifle creativity?

Mike Tenney

I have a bunch of these. So, number one: avoid writing schedules without having a discussion or an in-person conversation. Sending a schedule and saying, "Here’s the schedule." For me, it doesn’t work. I have to talk things through. I have to make sure that the team is in agreement on the next steps.

Number two would be micromanaging the team. Definitely don’t do that, because it’s a delicate balance. Because as project manager, I know that I’m thinking about, “I need to hit my deadlines. I need to think about all these logistics. I need to think about all the things that are possibly gonna go wrong.” But at the same time, I really need the creative team to focus on their creative vision, and they need to come up with something new and not feel stifled. So, as creative project manager I can’t be micromanaging that team. I have to have trust that they have the nuts and bolts of what the assignment is and that they’ll let me know if there’s any concerns that are gonna risk the project.

Another one, number three, would be not having flexibility. Cause there’s often a schedule milestone that can be pushed, or there’s a rule that’s actually not set in stone. So I try to be as flexible as possible throughout my projects, and really be an advocate to deliver the highest quality creative that we can deliver. And all of that kind of advocacy for the projects, it’s really helped earn the creative team’s trust in me, and the teams feel that if I give them a firm deadline or a must-address note, or if I request even something ASAP, that I’ve already done everything that I can do to avoid having that happen. 

Stephen W. Maye

So if you could only offer one piece of advice, what is that one piece of advice that you would give to a project or program manager that’s managing a creative project for the first time?

Mike Tenney

I would say to take a deep breath. And I think that’ll help for a few reasons.

Number one would be, creative teams really respond best to calm managers. When I’ve been stressed on projects, it shows, and it’s adversely impacted the project. Cause stress is contagious. And I thereby stressed out the creative team, and who knows, I could have compromised the creative that the team was delivering. And that’s a balance, because I have to keep things light, but I also have to keep things focused. So, even if I’m feeling the pressure, I really need to remain calm.

And number two would really be because the calmer the project manager is, the more things will be able to fall into place for the project manager. And things will be able to be put in perspective. So, the project manager will be able to see things from a big picture level, and they’ll also be able to see all of the details as well. And I think having that balance of seeing the big picture and the details at the same time, it’s monumental to how much that can help a project.

Stephen W. Maye

So, take a deep breath because stress is contagious, and keep a balanced perspective. And with that, Mike Tenney, senior director of creative project management at Nickelodeon, gets the last word.

Mike, it has been a pleasure. Thank you for joining us.

Mike Tenney

Thank you so much, Stephen.

[outro wrapper]
Narrator

Thank you for listening to Projectified™ with PMI. If you liked this episode, you can subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. We'd love your feedback, so please leave a rating or review.