What Makes a Great Creative Project Manager?

Recently, I attended a panel on project management as an audience member. One of the topics that kept coming up was, “What makes a great project manager?” I don’t think the panel ever fully got around to answering the heart of the question. 

So I began to think about the question. Over the years, my project management style has certainly changed. But when I look back to when and where I was very successful, I can see certain patterns emerge. 

Beyond the Mechanics and the Folly of Being a Taskmaster

If you have ever taken a project management course, or worked on your PMP, you tend to focus on the mechanics of how to manage a project. How to create a scope, a project plan, identifying tasks, navigating process, risk, milestones and deadlines are all things that are taught and learned. Certainly these are skills are important to know, a strong foundation in the basics means you can apply these concepts.

Indeed, knowledge of the mechanics is often one of the key things people look for in a project manager. However, if all you did as a project manager was to apply these concepts religiously, you may find yourself in the role and style of a taskmaster. I think this is where a lot of company’s get it wrong. If you are all business, and driven by tasks, productivity and outcomes, you might find yourself driving people on your team away from working as a team.

I’ll give you an example. I remember when I started at a very well known creative shop. First day on the job, I had a very senior project manager come up to me and announce, “Hi, my name is ______, and I’m a bitch. Get use to it.” 

I raised an eyebrow, like I tend to do, and I thought to myself, wow — great first impression, I bet everyone just loves to work with you.

From the outside, upper management thought she was one of the most productive people in the company. And yes, this person got stuff done. This person valued outcomes and this is what management saw, and by providing positive feedback she felt empowered.

So yes, this person got stuff done, but bullied everyone along the way. Did anyone want to work with this individual? No, this empowered person, lacked empathy. While this style may push work through, it wreaked havoc on the creative teams. While this individual may have completed things on time, if you compared this person’s projects with other project managers, you would see some significant differences. 

If you asked yourself, which team worked more offsite, came in late but worked late, had low team member retention and had clients that were less then happy with the creative, which team would it be? Would this team be run by the taskmaster, or someone who was collaborative?

I’m not saying that teams don’t need to be pushed. They do need to be challenged. But when you take the emotional connection component out, and don’t pay attention to what other people around you are feeling, your decisions as a project manager can be warped. 

Emotions are Everything

Great creative managers recognize the value of emotions and relationships in the workplace. When you are aware of feelings, (yours and others) it helps to make better decisions. That’s not to say you always have to be on, smiling all the time. But, if you are aware that you are having a crappy day, and someone on the team rubs you the wrong way, you are better able to take a second to think. Are they reacting to your mood? Can you refocus your thoughts and react to this situation where you check yourself. Or, is something going on that you can help them with in regard to barriers or issues. The type of self-awareness, and self-control are key traits to have and use as a project manager.

I know that my face often betrays my emotional state. (This is perhaps one of the reasons why I’m an awful poker player.)  At the same time, I’m also aware that I have the ability to check myself, and I’m able to come to peace in how I feel, so that when I am under stress, I can be one calm dude. Because great project managers realize that when all the planning goes out the window, they will be looked at directly to help the team out of this stressful and intense situation.

For those of you who have worked in advertising before, how many “emergencies or fires,” do you get hit with daily? Would you rather work with someone who comes to the table and bitch about a project burning down, or would you rather be that person that comes to the table having already put out most of the fire?

Being able to navigate what is going on emotionally with the group, allows a project manager to see situations clearly. Bring solutions to the table and have strategies to get teams buy-in and to get work done.

Great project managers also tell the truth. They don’t pad schedules, they don’t make up deadlines, they don’t agree to a due date of ASAP. They tell the truth — they seek the truth. By being honest and having character, project managers build relationships and trust not only within their team, but with clients, their boss and other important stakeholders. Great project managers are ones that you can go to, to get an honest to goodness real answer. They may say, “No” but they also say, ”but I can…” They may say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” 

Are Your Project Managers Leaders or Traffic Cops?

Great creative project managers know that being a leader in an agency is also hard work. One of the biggest differences in managing creative projects versus other types of projects is that there are a lot of chefs in the kitchen, who all want to contribute or have their say in what goes in the pot. How you lead those chefs or how the chefs lead you, can make or break successful project management in your organization.

Here’s how you can tell if you have traffic cops in your agency or real project management. If you have a traffic person, they pick up a recipe and take a pot from the proverbial kitchen and carry it to each of your chefs and let each one of them put their own ingredients into the pot. A traffic person follows the recipe to the letter, moving from station to station, check off tasks until the recipe is complete. 

A project manager, however, tastes what’s in the pot after each chef puts in their ingredient, seeking to improve the recipe at each stop. They may even intervene and put their hand over the pot, before a bad ingredient goes in. More importantly, they may stop the cooking, grab the chefs, come up with a strategy to modify the recipe to move forward or dump the pot and start over.

Outstanding creative project managers help to make award-winning recipes, even when they are given a hand full of ingredients.

Communication Skills Rule

Communication and listening skills are a big part of what makes project managers great. Building effective project communications with the team may start with having strong verbal skills, but managing projects is also about managing expectations. It doesn’t matter what tool or tools you are using in your organization to communicate, the fact is, people rely on the information and understanding to complete their part. They don’t rely on the tool, they rely on the project manager for accurate information to meet expectations. 

If we think back to a project that may have failed in our organizations, I think that we can all agree that poor communication is one of the top factors cited in identifying and pinpointing what went wrong with a project. Great creative project managers understand that communicating with the team is vital to a project’s success. How well we execute and craft an idea at the end of a project in creative land is equally as important in coming up with the original idea. And crafting something takes a ton of effective communication. The energy of a creative project doesn’t slow down at then end, it should only rise up.

Project Managers are Sense-Makers and Critical Thinkers

Managing the creative process is an active process, not a passive one. It is the project manager’s role to make “sense” of what is being asked of the collective effort. They lead the team by providing direction to individuals on the team so that it converges together. As the project manager focuses on the end goal, they are constantly applying their critical thinking skills to ensure that all of this effort actual comes together.

I was asked a question recently if I thought project managers should be strategic. I replied that I thought it was a core requirement for managing creative projects. Now, strategy in advertising lingo means something a bit different in how I mean it here in this context. But, good project managers apply different strategies all the time. 

Project managers are the key translators of the project into the vision, objectives, activities, tasks and outcomes. The strategies they apply, set rules for the team, set balances between constraints and freedoms, set how they share knowledge, define communication channels, who will work on what parts of a project, and how conflicts will be resolved.

This translation requires a bunch of strategies to turn the creative idea into a somewhat manageable reality. In the creative world, we often find that project we are working on is “new to us.” As a group and team, we all apply a “hands-on” approach to doing and learning. What we learn, is then reinterpreted, and our translation of what we should be doing and how we should be doing it shifts. And this process then requires a new set of strategies to be applied for the project to move forward. 

Creative project management is not a linear process, it maybe concurrent and irritative. It is  perpendicular to normal project management thinking. It is ok to run projects by employing methodology from a range of areas. There is no one set of “best practices” for managing creative projects. People who succeed in this area are people who understand the mechanics, that are empowered, empathetic, learners, teachers, guiders, communicators, critical thinkers, and strategists.