Creativity — Make It Part of Your Toolkit

PODCAST | With Guest Scott Berkun | 15 December 2017

Transcript

Narrator

The future of project management is changing fast. On Projectified with PMI, we'll help you stay ahead of the trends as we talk about what that means for the industry and for everyone involved.

Stephen W. Maye

I'm Stephen W. Maye for Projectifed with PMI. For an easy way to stay up to date on Projectified with PMI, go to iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play Music and PMI.org/podcast. In this episode, we discuss creativity with best selling author, sought after speaker and former Microsoft project manager, Scott Berkun. Scott explains creativity's often misunderstood and neglected role in project work, how to foster and apply creativity in process oriented environments today and why it will become even more important to your work tomorrow. Scott, you've shared some fascinating things in your books and in your talks and when you came on my radar, I was looking forward to the opportunity to talking with you, so thanks for being here today.

Scott Berkun

It's a pleasure, looking forward to chatting with you.

Stephen W. Maye

I want to get to the really important stuff first, which is that, I've seen a lot of pictures of you online and there's the shaved head Scott and the not quite shaved head Scott, the goatee Scott, the bearded Scott and the three day shadow Scott. So what's the deal with the hair?

Scott Berkun

I suppose the deal is that I am old. So you see many different flavours of haircuts over the 15 years or so that I've been up in front of people trying to convince them of things.

Stephen W. Maye

So it's not an obsessive need to change it, it's just that you have a longer online presence than maybe most of us do?

Scott Berkun

I'm a fan of Occam's Razor - that's probably the best answer to that question.

Stephen W. Maye

Okay, we'll take that for now. We know that the majority of people that listen to this podcast have some kind of a project oriented role. They may be senior executives that are leading a large initiative, they may be involved in a PMO, it could be a person who's fairly young in her career and leading her first project, for example. But there's a project theme to the folks that listen. One of the things that I believe to be true is that project management and project leadership and all the pieces that get wrapped up into that benefit greatly from creativity. I mean that as in creativity provided and applied across a broad range of project tasks. With that being the case, I want to make sure that before we get into places of application and benefit and all of those things, why don't you provide for me your definition for creativity.

Scott Berkun

I usually start off, when I'm asked that question, of explaining what it doesn't mean, or more precisely the way it gets misused. In American culture and western culture we have a very romantic idea of this word. We think of people who are gifted or talented. Renaissance artists and geniuses, we think of them as being creative, that it's some kind of special, magical thing that's distinct from other kinds of thinking. That's a dangerous framework to start from. So I try to help people out of that by just thinking about the fact that any kind of work that you're doing, especially project work, the goal is to make something. That is what you're hired to do as a project manager, as a project coordinator - something is being made or maintained, hopefully with the idea of improving it. So you are creating something. You are manufacturing or building something. And that's a much better way to think about the word. Someone who's working on Version 25 of some COBOL-based accounting package, they're still creative, they're still creating something. Then you can go down the path of, okay, if that's all that's required to be a creator, then what does it mean to make and create stuff that is good? Now we're on the track of how do you find good ideas, how do you find useful things? And that's a much stronger and healthier way to think about the word than the way it's often used in more romantic circles, which is that it's purely about novelty, that when someone in a meeting raises their hand and says yes to an idea that no one has ever heard before, the primary emotional and dopamine response in the brain that makes us attracted to that is simply because it's new. But novelty doesn't necessarily mean quality. Novelty is just some notion that we have culturally, that something that's new should be interesting, and that can be dangerous and destructive. So I try to offer a very humble view of the word. If you are making something and your goal is to make something good and you succeed at that, then you are creating things, you are acting creatively.

Stephen W. Maye

So first of all dispelling the idea that romanticising creativity somehow helps the process, or helps us appreciate it, and turning it much more to this notion of making something. I like that. I want to connect something back to your own history and I think you can then help us. I do happen to know that, unlike many of our guests, you actually do have some project management in your history. Is that over-stating it?

Scott Berkun

No, that's totally true. My first career after graduating from college, I worked at Microsoft for the most part as a project manager, as a team leader of developers and designers. I worked on Internet Explorer in the early days. I worked on Windows and a few other teams before I left in 2003. And the first book that I published was a book called Making Things Happen, which was basically trying to encapsulate everything I had learned in 10 years of working on big and small and expensive and cheap projects, all the things I wished that I had learned.

Stephen W. Maye

Microsoft, that's a software company, I assume!

Scott Berkun

Yes. That's at least what they claim to be, yes.

Stephen W. Maye

Connecting back to that, when you reflect back on your experiences as a project manager, where is creativity relevant? And I'm using the definition that you provided a moment ago - the way you described creativity and the way you think about it - where is that relevant to the work of a project manager?

Scott Berkun

The easiest place to start is when you're working on a project that has the goal of trying to improve things dramatically. If you're working on a project where the vision is to make customer satisfaction 30% higher, then you're going to be forced to come up with unusual or uncommon approaches that haven't been done before in order to achieve that. You're going to be pushing harder on what set of ideas is going to be in your tool kit and so that's obvious. If your goal as a project manager, even if you are the most conservative, bureaucratic, process oriented project manager, that you love check lists and you love Gantt charts and you love metrics for everything, if your goal is to make things 30% better, 50% better, in some way, you're going to be forced to be creative and forced to find solutions and study the history of the problem you're trying to solve. To find approaches that had been abandoned or forgotten, you're going to be pushed to go harder. I think creativity then, in the sense of projects, falls out of the charter for the project and what the vision that the boss or the executive has for what the product or thing you're making is supposed to be.

Stephen W. Maye

That reminds me of something you have described again in other places, which is the importance of defining good and who gets to decide the definition of good. Say more about that and the role of the project manager when we think about her role, showing up every day in a place where she may not have defined the project, she may not have set the objectives for the project, but she shows up to lead and manage it every day. Connect that with this idea of defining good.

Scott Berkun

It seems like a simple question - what is good? But when you sit down with a co-worker, or a developer, or a client, or your boss, and you get to the details of things, you realize there are some very different ideas of what is good or not. And arguably what a leader does - a project leader, or any kind of leader - every time they're in a meeting, every time they're in a conversation, is they are either fighting for or they are defending some notion they have of what is good enough for the project. So this becomes actually a pivotal question to answer. You could do everything right, but if the team doesn't succeed it's because they didn't make good enough decisions, or they didn't manage the project good enough, or they didn't spend the time to investigate enough good ideas to succeed. I can't think of a more important question for someone who's working project management to be good at answering. Sometimes during an argument with important people in a room and you realise as the project this is a waste of time, because any of the ideas being discussed are good enough, so why are we spending two hours arguing about this? A project manager that ends that conversation and says, "Look you pick this one and Sally will pick the next one," they're helping the project by simply deciding the decision is good enough no matter which end of it is. And the same thing is true on the other end of it. If everyone in the room has a strong consensus to go in one direction but the project manager thinks, "This is terrible, this is so far below the expectations we've set with our client and customer," and they do the 12 angry men thing where they're going to change the position of everyone in the room, that's also fighting for what is good. So I think that's a great question to ask. There's actually a chapter in the book about what is good, The Dance of the Possible - my most recent book about creative thinking - because I think no matter how creative you are or not someone has the power to decide is this good enough or not good enough? And that will determine what creative means or what approaches you should take in order to live up to that standard.

Stephen W. Maye

I think that's brilliant and I think both in terms of the importance of defining what good means and when is good enough, but being really, really clear on who gets to decide.

Scott Berkun

Absolutely. Sometimes that's more important than what they decide or not. It's just having everyone when they walk into a contentious meeting to know at the end of the meeting who the tie-breaker is, who has that kind of authority to just decide regardless of what opinions have been heard in the room. That clarification of who has that authority is one of the key things that a good manager or leader does, regardless of the context, creative or even just an engineering question or quality assurance question, that everyone knows who's going to make the call.

Stephen W. Maye

To make another connection, we have been talking to experts in Artificial Intelligence, automation, machine learning, robotics, digitisation and we will continue to in the pursuit of the goals of this show. When you think about a future that is increasingly more automated, increasingly more influenced by Artificial Intelligence, increasingly more digitised, what's the role of creativity in our future?

Scott Berkun

First of all, I'm a tech sceptic. I've written a lot of books about innovation and how progress happens and I'm proud of all the technological achievements we have made in the world, but at the same time I'm very dubious about our ability to predict, A, what progress will happen and, B, what its impact will be. I know that in the case of AI every time I use auto-complete on my iPhone in a text message, I'm really dubious about AI taking over the world. I think that you should look at these cases where you even have controlled systems which AI is supposed to be great at. Language is a controlled system, typed language especially, and we have the premier companies in the world with billion dollar valuations still failing to make these things work at a reliable level that isn't annoying almost as much time as it works. I'll run with the hypothetical though. So let's assume that AI does continue to progress, it does get smarter and smarter, I think that one of the key things that anyone working in AI will tell you about the limitations of the kind of AI work that's done is the nuance of human relationships. This is not something that is easy to understand, this is not something that is programmatic. There's so much nuance to body language and facial expression and understanding different cultural contexts that I have to think it will be the last thing that any kind of super intelligent AI could even figure out. And I didn't even get to the point about creativity yet. I think the role that project managers play of being this combination of intuition about human relationships and forming connections and making good decisions and leadership, it's this skill set that I think will be very very hard to replicate or to eliminate. Creativity falls in the same way because to be creative in a useful way means not only are you capable of coming up with good ideas, but you're able to do it in a way that solves problems and you're able to do it in a way that convinces people of their merit and that requires persuasion skills and knowing a lot about the people that you're talking to and having a sense of humour and using different elements of human expression in order to convince people that something is worth following. All of those things, I think on the spectrum of what AI and technology are likely to take away from possible jobs for people, I think are on the far end of that spectrum. I feel like as a writer, as a speaker or even as a project manager, all three of those jobs are relatively safe from the oncoming threat of automation.

Stephen W. Maye

So the human factor continues to carry the day for the foreseeable future in your perspective?

Scott Berkun

I think so. I think at greatest risk are people whose job is defined by a process. If my job is to follow a check list or to do these 10 steps every day, you're already doing something that's highly automated. It's just that you're the one who's following the steps and those are the roles and jobs that are the easiest to automate, the easiest to develop a programmatic way to replace, or to reduce the need for human interaction. So that's on the other end of the spectrum - things that don't require any nuance, any empathy or able to read between the lines of what someone says. So that's the opposite end of the spectrum I think.

Stephen W. Maye

I think you're making a case that creativity continues to be relevant into a more automated future, automated to some degree or another, and hearing your message about you being a technology sceptic, which is funny coming out of a Microsoft past. I think there must be a painful Microsoft story back there somewhere that we'll have to hear from you on another show!

Scott Berkun

There's lots of people who hate Microsoft products so becoming a technical sceptic if you're at Microsoft is your only example. I think it's understandable for a lot of people listening to this broadcast!

Stephen W. Maye

The opinions expressed by the guest of our podcaster are not necessarily those of the management! So you made the point about creativity continuing to be relevant in an increasingly automated future to some degree or another. I think you were making a point too about this kind of creative human element that is embedded in so many of the activities that make projects successful. So we'll take that as given as well. But what starts to change in your thinking? If we look out across the next few years, the next decade, what starts to shift in terms of the kinds of skills and ways of thinking that project managers need to be cultivating so they can better bring creativity to the job? And even to better bring creativity to the job today?

Scott Berkun

My first answer was going to be it depends on the kind of projects that you're doing. But then I realized that's always been true, that even 40 years ago, we like to think that the pace of technological change has gotten so fast now that everything happens so much faster than it did in the past. Even 40 years ago, you had projects, some engineering projects, some organisations with five year plans, and other smaller projects that were two months long, I think there's always been a tremendous spectrum and there still is. There's this ongoing wave of the web speeding everything up. Projects are now a week at a time, people using kanban boards to track things over week to week and sure, there's different skills that you need, or a different attitude or psychology you need to mend short, faster schedules versus long, marathon projects. But all projects, in all shapes, size, form and budget, there's still this need to have good ideas for every part of the process. There's some decision that needs to be made about, okay we have the requirements document, but now how are we going to design something that fulfils these requirements? What are the best five alternative concept sketches we can make for how this thing is going to work? What are the best 10 concepts we should consider? There's some point in the process where idea generation is the central thing that has to happen and it's often a stereotype of project managers that they're terrible at those processes because they work against the stereotype, the stereotype being that project management is a command and control process, that you're always looking to optimize, you're looking to be efficient, and idea generation is never efficient. Idea generation is always by definition exploratory process. A lot of the time you spend vetting and considering and looking for different ideas is going to be, quote unquote, thrown away. You're only going to use one design for the home page of the website even though you may consider five, or 10, or 15 different versions. So that's the skill set where finding a project manager that knows how to switch gears, that knows that when they're doing an idea generation, when the goal of part of the process of this part of the schedule, the idea generation, they have to wear a different hat. And they have to be less concerned about efficiency and less concerned about logic and be more open to exploring things and to trying things out and, my favourite word, which is probably a word I like much more than creativity, is to realise that they need to experiment. That in order to come up with an answer to this question to find a good idea, we may have to do three little mini projects, where we try something out, we show it to a customer, watch them try to use it, learn something from it, get some usability feedback and try again. We have to build that into the schedule to get an idea that's good enough to meet the vision for the project. And that's a skill set that I know many project managers have, it's part of their tool kit. And then I know a lot of project mangers that are terrible at open ended phases, they're terrible at it. So when I worked at Microsoft, we tended to have two types of project managers, those that were better at shipping projects and getting them finished and out the door and those who were better at starting them and exploring and once the project got to a certain point in development, it really needed to be led almost by someone else, or someone else on the team who had more of a strength in driving the project home, needed to have a more of a leadership role than they did at the beginning.

Stephen W. Maye

I'm wondering if some are listening to us and saying, "Yeah, but... how often and in how many different parts of this job do I really need to apply creativity?" I was thinking about a list I came across recently from Marjorie Pilli who writes about and consults in the area of project management, and just some of the examples of some of the places that she said in a blog post, "Look these are places in the project management world where you need to apply creativity." She said, "Identifying the problem, developing a goal or objective, gaining support of sponsors and stakeholders, developing a detailed plan, assessing risks, securing resources, assembling a project team..." and on she continued. So I think there are - I'm hearing it in the examples you're giving and that others have brought forward - a lot of opportunities in that process of managing and leading the modern project that would greatly benefit from a greater application of real creativity, real idea generation.

Scott Berkun

I completely agree. I think this is another place where the language becomes a stumbling block. Forget the word creativity, let's just use the phrase problem solving. I'm a problem solver, I'm like the wolf from Pulp Fiction, I'm the person who comes in and figures everything and makes everything work right. Well, you're solving problems, how do you do that? Well a problem solver identifies the problem, defines it, comes up with some alternatives of how to fix it and then goes and does it. That's a creative process. You might not call it that because your goal is not to have the most amazing idea, but in going through the process of solving a problem you and your brain at a minimum are coming up with possible alternatives, you're considering ones that might work, you're proposing them and you're making them happen. That is an idea generation process. Problem solving cannot happen without someone doing some amount of thinking and the difference between creative thinking and thinking becomes very, very small once you're actually doing work and that's part of why the romantic notion of the word is so bothersome to me, that when someone says "I got to think about this," and then you ask them, "Are you being creative?" They're like, "No, I'm just thinking." Well if you're thinking, you're being creative. You're coming up with ways to solve the problem in your mind, you're considering them, you're vetting them and you're picking ones that work well and you'll run with them further and you'll abandon ones that you don't think have as much value. Problem solving is a much easier term for buttoned down bureaucratic oriented people to swallow as worthy of time. Creativity is too often dismissed as unnecessary.

Stephen W. Maye

Problem solving sounds like a worthy business activity and creativity can sound like being back to lava lamps.

Scott Berkun

But when you sit down and say, "Okay, I'm going to sit in this room for an hour and problem solve with my team," versus, say, "I'm going to sit down in my room and do creative thinking with my team for an hour," what you're doing in the room for an hour is pretty much the same. It's just with problem solving you're honouring the idea of it being more directed of actually solving a problem. I don't think anyone in the world who is a proponent of creativity and writes books on creativity would suggest, "Oh yeah, the goal is not to solve problems at all." Be creative, but create problems. It's a non starter. Anyway problem solving is often the language I use when I'm trying to talk to entrenched teams that are a little bit more recalcitrant about how to be better at solving problems - I'll stick with the problem solving vocabulary.

Stephen W. Maye

When we think about project professionals of all stripes, as we talked about before, adding to their technical proficiency some of the skills and ways of thinking that are going to best serve them both in the future and today in bringing a greater sense of creativity to their worker and you talked about flexibility, experimentation and this idea of problem solving. I think those are powerful messages.

Scott Berkun

Thanks. I agree!

Stephen W. Maye

It's as if you had said them yourself!

Stephen W. Maye

Well after a valuable and thought-provoking exchange on creativity and project management, we realised there was a lot more to explore on this subject. So we'll follow up with Scott Berkun in a future episode. For now, thanks for listening.

Stephen W. Maye

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

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