Building Presence on the Creative Playing Field


On any given weekend, you may find yourself watching a game. In my house, the sport of choice, both watched and played on the weekends is soccer. As with any team sport, each member of the team needs to work together in order to score a goal. Every member of the team has a particular role but plays with an intricate underlying knowledge of who's on the field and where they are. Some play offense, some defense, but they have enough knowledge and ability to fill a gap if a player needs help. They work together passing the ball forward, backwards and sideways to keep possession of the ball and ultimately to score a goal.

Creativity is also a team sport. The art of solving creative problems requires thinkers, makers and builder to come together to solve business strategies by executing ideas that resonate emotionally and designed for you and me. Project managers along with strategists, creatives, and technologists all play different roles on the field, but the best teams are made up of individuals who not only play well together, but complement and support each other in developing ideas.

If you ever watched a soccer game, every now and then you'll see a player seemingly come out of nowhere and make a play, taking away the ball, acting as interference, blocking or shooting for a goal. It can seem like the reaction was almost instantaneous, and can have the direct effect of changing the tempo of the game. All of a sudden the ball is on the other side of the field, just one more kick a way from making a goal.

In order to be that individual, who can see all the players on the field, the hundreds of variations on where the ball can be kicked or passed to, and be the player to arrive at the exact instance in time where you are needed most is called having field presence. It is the ability to see through all the extraneous distractions, analyze what needs to be done and then act. 

Rookie, veteran or team captain – any player on the team can be responsible for making the winning play.

While this is especially true of team leaders, anyone on the team can have field presence. However, as a team leader, be it creative, strategic, account, project manager or producer, it can be an invaluable skill. As someone who may have played sports, or have been on a creative team, I bet you already know what I'm talking about, or at least you've seen someone utilize this skill in the real world. While this can be a natural ability, everyone can improve their own field presence skills. To give you some idea on how you can gain field presence, I'm going to walk through some project management framing questions that can not only help you in managing projects, but help to develop your own project management presence. 

The following questions are my own variation on the "5 Immutable Principles of Project Success." They may seem like very basic project management questions, but in practice, this is how traditional project management frames success. How you apply them to your creative project management thinking, in the real world and on the field is what really matters.

First ask yourself, "What are we trying to accomplish?" or, "What does Done look like in regards to the ask?"

In the creative project world we usually start with strategy to define what we are going to do. We ask all those strategic questions up front, do all the research in order to determine what the end result of the project is going to be (and how we can measure it). 

If you are a creative person, you ideate as much as around the strategy to come up with a way of achieving the desired results of the project as you do in developing the strategy. As a project manager, you need to know what the project is attempting to accomplish in order to evaluate progress. Not only will you need to scope (and estimate) the project, but you also need to constantly evaluate the validity of the original answer to "what done looks like."

Why would that matter to a project manager? As a team leader, we know that often in creative development, what we perceive as the executional "done" at the start of a project often doesn't make sense as the project progresses. When this drift occurs, the team leader needs to step in.

If you have ever dabbled in agile process management, you may already have an idea of what I'm talking about. Any creative process or any creative concepting is going to involve (and evolve) additional discovery. This experimenting, researching and networking leads to additional questioning of what "done" for the project may look like. It may or may not effect the original strategy, and be in scope, or it could mean a complete rethink of the original ask. As a team leader, this is where it can be crucial to have the presence of mind to act. For example, is the path the team taking match up with the original answer to "what does done look like?" Or is where the team heading a better direction, and how do we reset? How, as a team member can you either refocus the team or work to adapt the scope to the new direction. How do you manage the costs? What other outside team members can you call upon to support the team in helping to determine "what does done look like?" And does this new direction make sense?

In a way, the strategy for how you are going to manage the project is often glued to the strategy itself, which leads to...

The "How do we get there?" combined with "What is the plan to reach Done in the needed time and budget?" question.

This is the "strategic" way of how the team is going to perform the work, what order, what sequence and what the outcome of the work looks like. In the old days, it was easy to build a schedule and a sequence of how things get done. (There are even a bunch of charts on this site that show the old way of working on deliverables.) The key to success in creating a schedule is that it shows progress to the plan, however not every schedule can plan for innovation and creativity. Having field presence means it is more important to set the "rules" and "responsibilities" for working, rather than slogging through unneeded steps or steps that become obsolete as the project progresses. It also means being aware of "burn-rate," it may also mean stepping in to pause the project, or run steps concurrently. It also means having the presence of mine to change the "rules," when they aren't working and sticking to them when they absolutely need to work. 

Before you can make an on the field decision, you need to have a plan to complete the project in the needed time and budget. When and if you go off course, you know where, you can recognize it and then you can right the ship. Having a plan is one thing, but having the right resources and needs to reach the project's goal is another.

And this is the third principle, the "Do you have all of what you need to reach done?" question.

This is where having a good "T-shaped" producer or project manager is going to make all the difference. While we can rely on team member's past performance, having a project manager who has had experience in the type of project can better deal with evaluating if the estimate for resources is credible. And that credibility is key not only from the start of the project, but during the execution as well. Having the presence of mind to evaluate resources and when to switch things in or out can be crucial to the success of the project. It also means having the authority and the will to do so. 

Which leads to the next question, "Do we know what impediments we will encounter along the way, and do we know what to do when we encounter them?" 

This is how team leaders manage and deal with risk. Risk management centers on identifying, analyzing, planning, tracking, controlling and communicating the risk. Project management means making a list of risks and ranking them, assessing the impact and analyzing the dependencies of the risks. Handling risk is never easy, but this is what having presence means. It is the continual mental (ok, you can write it down) evaluation of the probability of something going wrong that impacts the project, the costs, the schedules as well as the cost to handle the risk and the consequences of the risk after handling. As a player on the field, you have to constantly analyze the risk of a particular play. What risk you take and how you do it is based on your own internal knowledge. However, unlike the player on the field with seconds to spare, you have the real ability to spend a lot more time analyzing risks, talking to others and doing the necessary background work so you can minimize that risky play.

Lastly, "How can we measure progress to the plan, to assure we will arrive on-time, on-budget and we are delivering not only what the client wants, but will meet what the consumer wants on-time and on-budget?"

Formally, at the start of the project we do this on a scope-of-work, we list key milestones, and deliverables. We measure progress towards what is being done, by the outcome of the work being done. We assign performance measures to what is being delivered and then integrate them throughout the project so that our client is happy with the progression of the work. We often get off track when this scope-of-work drifts, or when the scope-of-work was unrealistic to begin with. Going off scope can happen for any number of creative, client, resource or technical issues. Having field presence means that you take all those root causes that can impact the project and look at them together as a whole. The bigger the variance, the bigger need to take corrective action. It also means having the tools in place at the start of the project, so you can measure the situation, and apply what you are going to do to fix the situation before it gets off track. If you don't know how much you are spending, you don't have a handle on timing, or risks or your team members then things are going to happen. In traditional project management, we address this by measuring the "physical percentage complete." This can be very difficult in creative projects, but milestones can be put in place. Measuring the outcome of those milestones can be done against the end goal. Reseting those milestones when the project takes a left turn can also be done. Acting on that information is important not only to you and the client, but to the team itself. Keeping everyone on task is important, but meeting milestones is also important. (But when and how you meet those milestones, is up to you.)

When we serve clients in a creative manner, there are always concrete deadlines to meet. While you may succeed in getting a client to move a deadline, it only works out for the best when you are doing it together in a way that relates to the original expectations and rules of engagement. Be a true client partner, its common sense that we shouldn't have any big surprises for the client while a project is in progress. 

Delivering on creative "asks" is not easy. In fact, the project you are working on may be the first of its kind. But you, your team, the company and your client will always look to measure how well the project went. The ideas that we create and execute in the real world can be measured in many different ways, and analytics, data, unpaid media, and awareness factors are only a few of them. The most important thing to remember is that all creative ideas can and will be measured. Agreeing to those measurements at the start of the project is important not only from a client relationship stance but also a financial one. (Heck, your company may have even bid out the project so you get additional compensation for certain measurements.) 

I say this because it is important from the start of a project to understand how and why the project will be measured. Your thinking on how you manage the project may be effected by the way it is measured and evaluate. 

By keeping these questions or presence reminders in mind, it will help you to make better plays on the field. Having field presence is important, but so is actively managing your project(s) in a proactive fashion. We make decisions based on having a plan, understanding the project goals and what done means, assessing resources and risks and having a way of measuring progress. Being prepared, analyzing, asking questions and having a plan is important to making informed decisions so that you can better handle the non-linear progression and process of creative work.