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The Importance of Communicating

Communicating with Stakeholders, the Client and the Team

Keep your communication simple, free of buzzwords. Say, “yes” when you mean “yes,” say, “no” when you mean “no.” Be honest with people, be real. Don’t wait to give feedback, find the person and talk to them face-toface. Get to know your team, and have them get to know you. 

If you are starting with a new team, it is certainly important to set the rules of how you are going to work and communicate with each other from the very start. Project management in the innovative world comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, so it’s important to set the way you are going to work and collaborate at the very start.

Stakeholders (the people who have a say and approval in your project) may not always be in one location. You may work with multiple teams, partners and vendors that are scattered across the world.

One way of communicating with all these different groups may or may not work. In some large projects, how you communicate for certain needs can even be a deliverable on its own in the scope-of-work.

How you choose to communicate is also important. You may not always be able to work face-to-face with everyone. As a project manger, you are the information giver and receiver for the team. If you don’t do your best in communicating not only with your team, but with your client, your boss and outside partners your project is going to go down hill fast.

Beyond face-to-face talks, email, and smoke-signals, there are hundreds of different tools that you can use to communicate with your team.

As a project manager you are going to have to give (push) communications and get (pull) communications. Push is what it sounds like, your sending out a message. Pull means that you have to go after it. In this role you are going to do both.

Keep you methods and tools for communicating as simple as you can. Find a tool that your team is going to be okay with using culturally. Set the rules up front for how you are going to use the tool and the expectations the team has around the use of the tool. Try and use tools and reports that can be shared with your internal team as well as outside stakeholders (like clients and vendors).

Communication with the team.

How to seek real communication for team collaboration.

Communication at the team level, is not about having meetings. It’s about having enough respect for each other that we actual engage with each other in meaningful ways.

In the creative world, we talk a lot about how we communicate with our audience. But when it comes to communicating with each other, we can do a lot better. It’s more than just closing the tops of our laptops, or keeping our phones in our pockets during a meeting. It’s more than sending an email or a text dictating next steps. It’s more than status reports, or a list of next steps and tasks.

You want to collaborate and innovate?
Then we have to make something clear.

You are not the sole reason a great team kicks ass.

Team success is more than just one person’s contribution or reasoning.

It takes work, it takes quality communication, people who are engaged when they communicate, and people who share what they learned outside of the team environment, working together to reach a common goal. It’s not about over-sharing either. Quality communication isn’t about quantity. Have you ever been to so many meetings during the day that you never get to actually work during the day? You know what I’m talking about. But you can’t use this type of disfunction as an excuse, it doesn’t give you an out. Real connections, are where you are actually talking to someone, face-to-face, making eye contact and having an equal exchange of ideas.

You want to collaborate and build on each other? Listen to each other — give and take in equal ways. Keep it short and concise. Don’t lie, don’t tell garbage to each other, don’t drain the energy out of someone else, and don’t monopolize the conversation.

Having real conversation is a two-way connection. Talk, listen, absorb, repeat back understanding, building a meeting of minds. Get your idea across, make sure there is understanding and that goes both ways.

Build something out of the conversation — this is what it means to be engaged, this is what is going to move the project forward.

Here’s my gift to you. It’s ok to talk to each other. It’s ok to have one-on-one conversations that don’t involve everyone all the time. It’s ok for you to talk to someone else without all your team mates.

However, with that permission, comes the importance that everyone should be connecting on the team in the same and equal manner. And everyone needs to be contributing in semi-equal ways. That includes seeking out fresh perspectives beyond the team, new learnings or sharing their work or alternate solutions and bringing it back to the team.

Let’s think about this for a second. As innovative firms what do we do as our process? We have discovery, we learn something, we share what we learn, we build on all the new sources of information in order to solve creative projects. This same process happens at the team level. We go back and forth with each other, sharing new information that we discovered, we engaged with each other to integrated multiple points of view into new ideas, and then the pattern repeats till we get something freaking cool.

That’s what great teams do. That’s what you want to work on.

In the movie “Oblivion,” with Tom Cruise, him and his partner are constantly asked by control if they are “still an effective team?”I don’t have to ask you if you are in an effective team, you are well aware of when youare or not.

For example,

Do people cut each other off when they try and contribute?

Are certain team members ignored?

Do people discourage others from seeking help or opinions?

Is the team leader a jackass, doing most of the talking all the time?

If you answered, yes, to any of these questions, then you aren’t an effective team.

Unless you are the team leader, it can be hard to be a part of an unbalanced team where you feel you don’t have control over making the team better. You can have all the energy in the world but we’re human, and a bad team experience can zap the energy right out of you. You can be engaged as a team all you want, but if no one has the energy because they aren’t valued, or they are just not a good team fit, it can be hard on you and everyone else.

Here is something very important to learn. A team leader can be just as bad a fit as a team member and that agency “culture” and proper “team culture” in an agency doesn’t always map out the same. However, culture and fit are indispensable to a team’s success. As a consultant, it is easier, perhaps, for me to see what strategies can be employed to help the team get back on track. But as a team member, you can do some similar things. You can give feedback to your team-mates. You can ask for people to meet face-to-face and connect with them eye-to-eye. You can practice active listening. You can help others practice it too. You can forge new team connections, get people to be comfortable and open the door for them (and you) to contribute (or the chance to contribute) to the team.

Not everyone is an extrovert or needs to be to help adjust things in a team setting. Heck, we want diversity of thought and personality, it’s all these different views that make a team great.

What we can’t do is always rely on the hope that a team leader is going to change or a certain team member that is not pulling their weight is going to be replaced. While that may be what happens in the end, your energy level, your communication ability, engagement and discovery process shouldn’t go down with it.

As a producer your role is not only to communicate information and support collaboration, but do so in ways that it supports the project’s goal. Nothing can kill a project faster then poor communication.

Earlier we talked about how communication is two-way. As a project manager, you have to be a good listener. You also have to actively be engaged with the individual so that you understand what’s not being said. What is the person really trying to tell you? Does the person understand what you are trying to say? And do you get them?

Misunderstandings and conflicts can be avoided by listening to the meanings behind the words, and creating mutual understanding between you and others. It’s about watching body language and observing non-verbal signals and asking the proper follow-up questions.

The Importance of Technical Communications

A major part of every job is an employee’s ability to communicate. As someone that is going to coordinate a wide range of both internal and external individuals, you are going to be called upon to write and speak effectively to others — constantly. You need to not only be able to convey information, but you will need to convey some very abstract ideas and project objectives at times. As a team lead you also need to be a great presenter, negotiator, debater and conflict resolution specialist.

Expectations Rule - Set the Stage Right!

The Team Expects the Project Manager will:

• Assist in the problem-solving process by coming up with ideas.

• Provide proper direction and leadership.

• Provide a relaxed environment.

• Interact informally with team members.

• Stimulate the group process.

• Facilitate adoption of new members.

• Reduce conflicts.

• Defend the team against outside pressure.

• Resist unnecessary changes.

• Act as the group spokesperson.

• Provide representation with higher management.

The Project Manager Expects the Team will:

• Demonstrate membership self-development.

• Demonstrate the potential for innovative and creative behavior.

• Communicate effectively.

• Be committed to the project.

• Demonstrate the capacity for conflict resolution.

• Be results oriented.

• Be change oriented.

• Interface effectively and with high morale.

The Stages of a Maturing Creative Team

Treat your peers as grown-ups. There is no such thing as having minions or subservient task people in life. Your team and staff have to be given real responsibility. Help them when they need help, share your knowledge. Have empathy and be human. No one has a monopoly on great ideas. Not your senior people or your creatives. Ideas can come any way, from any one. Encourage it, you need all the ideas you can get.

All teams go through stages of development that are often independent of actual work phases. Teams develop in stages, over time, before they become productive. One of the most commonly used framework for understand the team’s stages of development was developed by Bruce W. Tuckman. (reference) His descriptions of Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning provide a useful framework to understand how teams develop and mature in their working relationships.

    As a team transitions from one stage to the next, the needs of the team and its team members vary. Understanding why things are happening and exhibiting certain behaviors, can be an important part in helping your team successfully transition to the next stage of development.

    The first four stages are a helpful way for recognizing a team’s behavioral patterns; they are most useful as a basis for establishing ways of best working with the team. The last stage, called adjourning, is when the team dissolves. The goal as a project manager is to identify what new behaviors are going to need to be established in order to improve team collaboration and efficiency, moving past each stage to a high performing team. 

Stage 1: Forming

How people feel

During the Forming stage of team development, team members are usually excited to be part of the team and eager about the work ahead. However, right now they are more of a group than a team. Some members will have high positive expectations, while others may be more reserved, wondering how they will fit in to the team and if their performance will up to par.

Team Behaviors

During the Forming stage there will be lots of questions from team members, reflecting both their excitement about the new team and the uncertainty or anxiety they might be feeling about their place on the team. Individuals will have their own agendas during this stage because a team agenda does not exist. During this stage, team members will also begin to form opinions about who they can trust, and what level of involvement they will commit to the project.

Team Tasks

The principal work for the team leader during this stage is to create a sense that there is a team, not just a bunch of individual people. Allow the team time to help set clear structure, goals, direction and roles so that members can begin to build trust. A good kick-off process can help ground the team by establishing rules for working together, team expectations as well as agreeing on the team’s project mission and goals. During the Forming stage, much of the team’s energy will be focused on defining the team so the actual level of real task for that is getting done will be pretty low.

Project Leadership Style

During this stage, the team leader (or leaders) will be doing more directing, driving the process to get the team on the same page, by presenting the objectives and scope of the project. However, they should focus on a proper team startup procedure, getting the team to know each other, what’s expected of them and organize some time for the team to socialize. Now is the time to encourage open discussions and alate and feelings of concern they may have.

Stage 2: Storming

How people feel

As the team begins to move toward, some of the team is going to realize that the task is different or more difficult than they had imagined. Reality of the situation can produce a range of feelings, from being annoyed to their attitude about the team in general. During the Storming stage, members are trying to see how they fit in with the team and how others are responding to differences and the team is handling conflict.

Team Behaviors

Behaviors during this stage may be less collegiate than during the Forming stage, with frustration or disagreements about goals, expectations, roles, constraints and responsibilities being openly expressed. This frustration might be directed towards other members of the team, the team leadership or the team’s sponsor. If they think your a bad leader, they are going to let you know it. Interpersonal issues are going to be high, as some members chose to actively participate, while others are going to sit back and watch.

Team Tasks

As a leader during the Storming stage of development you may need to call for the team to refocus on its goals, perhaps breaking larger goals down into smaller, achievable steps with a subset of subleaders. The team may need to develop both new ways of working. A redefinition of the team’s goals, roles and tasks can help team members past the frustration or confusion they experience during this stage.

Project Leadership Style

Team leaders need to strive to build a positive work environment, practicing their active-listening skills. managing conflict and driving consensus. The trust level at this stage usually comes in the form of building alliances, while your goal is to have the entire group working together. If new ideas are not emerging at this stage, and team members are not challenging each other’s ideas, then creativity is at standstill. Help the team deal with differences, give feedback early and often, look to help people build relationships.

Stage 3: Norming

How People Feel

During this stage, team members have begun to resolve the discrepancy they felt between their individual expectations and the reality of the team’s experience. As this is the stage where work is usually being completed, hopefully the team, individually and collectively have come together and establish a group identity that allows them to work together. People should experience an increased sense of comfort in expressing their “real” ideas and feelings. Cooperation and collaboration have replaced the mistrust that characterized the Storming Stage. Team members should start to feel part of a team, adhering to agreed-upon rules and keeping communication clear.

Team Behaviors

Behaviors during this stage may include members making a conscious effort to resolve problems and work together as a group. There should be more frequent and more meaningful communication among team members A willingness to share ideas, ask teammates for help and capture lessons learned. Team members have discovered and accepted each other’s strengths and weaknesses and hopefully morale is high.

Team Tasks

During this stage, the team shift their energy to the team’s goals and show an increase in productivity, in both individual and collective work. 

Project Leadership Style

As a project leader, during this stage you are there to help maintain group collaboration and help ensure that the team maintains its motivation. Your job is to help the team with any blockages that prevent work from getting done. Your collaborating with the team as well at this point. As a leader, you need to watch out for groupthink. You may have to help them out by providing additional ways decision making, or group activities to encourage creative thinking. Now is the time to get the team into a pattern of working together.

Stage 4: Performing

How People Feel

The Performing stage of team development is where the team is working at its highest level. Team members tend to feel positive, and look forward to participating. Members feel attached to the team as something “greater than the sum of its parts” they know what to do and how to do it. Morale is high and the team is usually at it it’s highest creative stage.

Team Behaviors

Team members are able to prevent or solve problems in the team’s process or as the team’s progress. People are actively looking to assist others. Roles on the team may have become more fluid, with members taking on new roles and responsibilities as needed. 

Team Tasks

In this stage, the team is making significant progress towards its goals. Commitment to the team’s mission is high and the competence of team members is also high. Team members should continue to deepen their knowledge and skills, including working to continuously improving team development. 

Project Leadership Style

A high performing team can only sustain this level of performance for a certain period of time. As a team leader you need to have a light touch to help facilitate the work. Act as a coach when necessary, encourage new lines of thinking and creativity. Actively reward the team for small achievements, but in general stay out of the way and just be a part of the team. As a leader you can also support the group by encouraging more advanced problem solving techniques. You may look for ways that you can encourage personal development, and assist in managing change.

Stage 5: Adjourning, The end of a team.

Creative projects are often short, lasting days, weeks or only a few months.  I encourage agencies to continue to build and maintain teams the best they can so that when a project comes to the end, you can build on team behavioral successes. If you continue to encourage the team and feed it new work, you can continue a high level of performance that is ongoing.

However, even the best teams break-up. Certainly celebrate the end of the project. The end of a great team can cause all sorts of feelings for individuals. Working in teams at a high level can have a family like atmosphere, and when the family breaks up, people need encouragement and a bit of help to find their way in a new team family.

Not every team that you will work with will actual get through to the Norming and Performing stage. There are many reasons why this can happen, some individuals lose their motivation no matter what strategies you try. Team conflict may become irreparable if tempers fail. Interpersonal relationships are complicated. This is why as a project manager you need to manage the team in ways that help them through each stage so that the work can get done in the most efficient way possible.

Managing Deadlines

In this day and age, the gravity of the phrase, “drop dead date,” is lost in translation. Just what does this phrase mean? As any salt-worthy project manager and producer knows, it can mean just about anything. 

However, be savvy when examining deadlines. Just because someone gives you a date doesn’t always mean it is the real date, you need to do a background check to ensure that the time you are given is honest and true. It is up to you as a project manager to find out if the date is fixed, flexible, past-due or just plain made up. In some cases, there may be other due dates prior to the final deadline that are even more important. For example, quick deadlines can mean very short client approval times. Your client may have very restrictive approval dates and times. It’s essential for you to find out up front.

    Why is this important? It can mean all the difference in deciding which resources to put on task, how much the budget is going to be and how many late nights and weekends its going to take to finish the project. This is especially important in an environment where all projects have a sense of urgency. Let’s face it, when everything is rush and the deadlines almost always seem to get pushed back, your team looses trust in you and can in-turn stop caring about the work, and that’s the last thing you want to happen. 

So what can you do to manage deadlines?

Set expectations from the start. 

Establish what a real sense of urgency is. Distinguish real deadlines from the fake ones. Be real and be honest and require that of your team and client.

Be a role model. Tight deadlines are stressful. Don’t freak out. Nip conflict and grumbling in the butt, before it develops. Care about the work.

Be optimistic. The way you portray the situation often goes a long way in getting people to rise to the occasion. Deal with feelings in your team in a supportive and positive manner.

Manage your team. Delegate, check in, but give people time, even if its shorter task deadlines. Don’t say, “I need this right away, or yesterday.” Define small deadlines, but make people accountable for them. And by all means, stick to those times and dates.

Make sure all members of your team are available, that means all creatives, account people, production staff and the clients. Set expectations for key milestones to ensure quick approvals.

Protect your team members from distraction. Let them focus on what needs to get done.

Be responsive. Be available to your team and get answers.

Maintain high standards and quality control. During crazy times, quality control is super important. Do not accept anything less then perfection. Too many times projects explode over simple proofreading errors or mistakes. Take the time to check the phone numbers, URLs and specs yourself, in addition to your quality control team.

Be flexible. Fast deadlines can mean constant change.  

Be engaged, be a leader.

I would love to put the phrase “Which one do you want, Cheap, Fast or Great?” to its final resting place. It no longer applies in today’s world. Not to say that many projects don’t suffer these constraints under tight deadlines. 

We certainly shouldn’t be encouraging disadvantageous project scenarios. But producing quick turn-around projects successfully on all three of these fronts can still happen in today’s work environment. Because there are always people that a client can go to that will convince them that they can do it faster, cheaper or better. The only thing that you provide your client that is any different from any other agency is what value you bring to the table. If you are no longer bringing value to the table, a client is going to go elsewhere.

I think we can all look back at some of our most successful creative projects and smile. We all know of those projects, the ones we actually put in our books, the ones that have won awards, those often come about under great pressure. Why does great work sometimes happen during these times? When a deadline is real, and a client is willing to share risk — creatively, teams rise to the occasion.

Establish priorities. 

Priorities tell the team where to focus, it also tells them what happens if you don’t meet them. Setting deadlines and prioritizing work requires a balance however. 

To summarize, don’t set unrealistic goals, impose fake ones or even vague ones. Nothing will kill your team’s momentum faster, or create unwanted team behaviors. As a team leader, this is where you should feel comfortable in getting the team to participate in priority setting. You can guide them through assessing the asks, and determining what to do first. You can also help you team by being the voice for feedback on achieving goals, as well as sharing with the team how their project activities effect the overall goals of the project.

I know managing projects can be really stressful. How you choose to handle these tight deadlines and what your attitude is, really does have an impact on others. 

Working under traditional project management frameworks

If you have traditional project management in your firm, it can be in the form of three common organizational structures. 

Functional Structures

Under a functional structure, where the firm’s resources are focused on individual services, where employees report to a functional manager and are grouped by speciality is the weakest organizational structure for managing creative projects. 

For managing work it is the least effective and desirable way of working. It creates weak project management ownership, with employees looking to their boss for constant direction rather than the project manager.

However, if you have a stand-alone service, where the functional department is organized as a team, the functional manager can act as the project manager. The functional team has to remain small and specialized, and has to have the characteristics of a self-organizing team in order to be effective. If you look to agency’s that have very specialized production capabilities, labs or content production teams you may see this as a practice.

Matrix Structures

Under matrix structures, team members may have a functional manager, but receive direction from a project manager. Depending on the type of matrix structure,  (strong, balanced and weak) the project manager will have varying levels of authority. Matrix structures have been pretty common way of working for creative firms in the past. The downside is that the project manager or project managers tend to have problems with getting and managing dedicated resources. Even strong matrix organizations can be frustrating to work in, since employees tend to focus their attention on their performance with their functional manager and not necessarily with the project team. This causes issues with who has ultimate say in the work, the quality of work and directing team members. 

Matrix like project management can work okay when you are working in dedicated waterfall phases, where a project is handed off from one team to the next. From a creative and strategic standpoint as the phases progress towards the end of the project life-cycle inconsistencies in work quality can arise. It can be hard to pivot or react to change in this setting.

Project Structures / Team Based

The nature of creative work falls into this way of working fairly easily. The agency may have multiple teams made up of different specialists, where they report into one main project manager or team leader. Projects can be grouped together into a portfolio (like campaign work) or based by client, where you have one team dedicated to a specific client. 

This is a pretty familiar way of working for creative firms, there may be a few senior leads that act as functional department heads, but they may be dedicated more to actually working on a team themselves than actually acting with project authority, except in the way of maintaining standards.

The downside to creative work and maintaining teams is that the work ebbs and flows depending on what stage the work or the project is in. Typically creative firms will work to establish multiple teams, so that there is some consistency when it comes to who works on similar clients or project types. Resource management is problematic in this setting since it can be hard to maintain a consistent team in this structure. 

Where you fit in as a traditional project manager

The nature of what you will be doing as a project manager is really determines by these structures. It’s the understanding that you know the context of what people are expecting you to do and not to do. That can be pretty hard, since under functional structures and some matrix structures your hands may be tied in what you are able to do or change. However difficult things seem to be in those settings, traditional project managers can use context to their advantage.

Understand who all of your stakeholders are, what they want and how you can accommodate them all with the least amount of duplication of effort.

Accept that traditional project management is often effected by the politics that arise when team members feel like they report to multiple managers. Use the political nature of the organization to your advantage. Find ways of working that lend themselves towards team based ways of working, even when your structure feels like it’s hierarchy is overbearing.

Lead from the front, be the hub that makes things work, understand the end goal of what your project is meant to accomplish, beyond where you fit. 

Traditional project management requires a high-level of planning so understanding what success means is vital.

Defining the success of a project in creative land can be very difficult. At the minimum, we have to achieve client acceptance of our work. We have to deliver on the typical triple constraints of project management, on-budget, on-time and on-schedule. We have to ensure that we are able to measure our performance, and utilize methodologies to improve on the constraints the next time we have a project. What can be hard for traditional project managers is their ability to affect the bigger picture, what was the value that we created for our client? Beyond making the deadline, did our project deliver on the problem or did we just meet the date?

This is where creative project management is hard to reconcile. How do we strive for measuring performance in an environment where our process is often not repeatable? We can certainly improve the way we work. We can be better planners, and have a plan when things go to hell. We can also work on ensuring that we get the right people on the job and that we communicate well with our stakeholders. 

Exploring excellence in creative project management

Should we stick to consistency for the sake of excellence in methodology? It’s ensuring that the bigger vision is being met, and speaking up when it is not. It is simplifying the process so that you can easily track what’s going on, and that your team and your client can follow along easily as well. You can implement change when you need to, and ensure that your triple constraints are being met. You can work towards building a client experience that achieves a high-level of service.

Traditional project managers, at the core of their management style speak to excellence in service leadership. (Project managers aren’t servants, but lead through making sure the team has everything they need to succeed, they support the team as a team member, rather than limiting creativity.) Excellence in creativity is a strange thing to strive for if you think about it. Creativity is subjective, but a bad idea poorly executed is objectively the result of poor project management. 

Project manager’s can seek excellence by mastering their technical skills so that they can support the ambiguity of creative outcomes. Let’s take planning for as an example. Great project managers can visualize a project at its starting point, providing guidance the planning cycle, while we still want to be flexible with our schedules, a great many creative projects still rely on end-dates. If you are providing the marketing for a new product, for example, for a specific sales date (say the winter holidays), you know you have certain fixed deadlines that can’t be missed. You can easily work backwards for example, and acknowledge a set of deadlines prior to that launch date that need to happen in order for your marketing to be produced. These are fixed points. If you don’t make the dates, your company doesn’t get paid.    

Excellence comes from understanding the planning cycle but executing and monitoring risk as well. It comes from your ability to manage you and your team’s capacity for the work, from scheduling, assignments and utilization. It’s also about your ability to properly scope the work, the costs internally and externally and ensuring the project doesn’t go over budget. 

Creative project management command and control is a perceptual myth

Once you start a project, you move from planning, to monitoring and guiding creative entropy. Any and all the moving parts of your project are going to suffer from factors that are always going to be out of your control. There are so many things that can go wrong on a creative project, we do not have control over the ship as much as we seek to guide it to it’s final destination. 

Seek to make small adjustments that are going to make the largest amount of long-term impact. Think about your projects as a ship traveling distances from destination A to destination B. What are the small course adjustments that you can make so over the long distance you can stay on track? The thing about creative projects is no matter how hard we try and steer the ship, there will always be factors that are beyond our control that will fight where we finally wind up.

In fact, many creative projects never make it to destination B — and you have to be okay with that. Destination B just looked like the best place to land when you first planned your journey. 

Your original planned destination may not be where you need to land

Your role is to ensure that your team has the ability to travel to the right final destination. Sometimes that means abandoning your original journey, and sometimes it means getting everyone to jump into shark infested water and swim to shore when you ship runs aground. 

We often think about risk management and risk assessment as continual processes and cycles. We make our plans, we assess, we handle things that come up and monitor that risk for possible future changes. It’s not an independent event, we are always in risk management mode. 

In creative land, our projects require us to look at risk in a slightly different light. When we are looking to assess risk, we are we actually doing? We are attempting to minimize risk, or what can wrong. We identify a potential risk, we assess it, we plan out what to do, we implement a course direction making sure we monitor it so that it’s impact to the overall project is minimal.

However, one of the biggest tenets for creative problem solving is allowing for learning to happen through failure. If we constrict too far as project managers we run the risk of building a project that may not result in the best creative solution. Creative project management risk assessment can result in the continuation of the plan, or result in large deviations from the plan. Risk assessment is conjoined to creative problem solving. If we go one way, we can stay on track, if we go another way, we diverge into a new plan or we go down both avenues to explore risk as an opportunity.

The Invisible Rules of Teams

In an organization, not all rules are written down. When you first start a job, everything is all rosy. They invite you in, give you the spiel on how things work, maybe, just maybe, you get some on-boarding or a bit of training. Then you are off and left mostly on your own to get started. If you are really lucky, you may get a peer or a co-worker to help you along in those first few weeks until you get settled. 

There are some things that you kind of have to learn on your own. Often they run counter to what you where told, or you may learn about them unexpectedly. These are the invisible rules of engagement. Rules that aren’t written down and rarely discussed. However, they can be a major force for how an organization functions. 

These are the practices in the organization or the behaviors of people in situations that kind of keeping you guessing at first. You have to figure them out on your own. Others, unwritten rules can show up quickly. For example, in many agencies they say they have set hours from 10 to 6 for example, but if you leave the door before 7, you quickly find out it’s frowned upon. 

Sometimes these rules emerge because of office politics. Perhaps the unspoken angst between competing agency founders who have some strange power playing going on. In this case, the unwritten rules emerged due to the nature of the staff trying to please both founders, or when working with them individually. 

The invisible Rules of Engagement are a product of you organization’s cultural environment, it’s ability to trust and handle risk. (Rosenfield 2005) They can effect people’s communication style, decision making and the quality of shared information. 

As an agency leader, there is a lot that you can do to encourage innovation, creativity and team work by working on your style of communicating with the team, allowing your teams and leadership teams autonomy and support. There are less unwritten rules when an agency maintains a high level of transparency. 

 As a project leader, you can do the same. Laying all the cards on the table. Or, as a team member you can work on controlling your behavior so you don’t pick up the bad habits of others. As a team, you can all work as one unit, supporting each other, instead of playing power games.

On an individual level, it can be very frustrating when the agency displays behavior that is incongruent with its perceived values. Unwritten rules of engagement can also change over time, and through lack of communication, it can be inevitable that you may find yourself being side-swipped. These are the side-effect results of when written rules, how we are suppose to act, and the unwritten rules, the ways people actually do act.

Sometimes, you may ask yourself, “What the hell just happened here?” To be honest, there is a good chance you may never know the real underlying nature, dynamics or reasoning surrounding an invisible rules. It can seem hurtful, because it can be perceived as a breach of etiquette or a disrespectful way of interacting. 

 In reality, what anyone individual is experiencing is only part of the underlying situation. Certainly there is no excuse for bad behavior. Is is important to look at unwritten rules from a holistic viewpoint. Like many unwritten rules or organizational behavior, what you as an individual is seeing is only the tip of a much larger iceberg. How you perceive the situation is going to be very different than how your team mate, peer, manager, or firm owner is going to view the situation.

Edward Schien, has identified a set of forces that influence “the way things get done.” and groups them as either behaviors or motivation for those behaviors (Stein, 2010)

  • Regular behaviors, when people interact, such as language, customs, traditions and rituals.
  • Group norms and values
  • Formal organizational principals that guide employee action.
  • Rules of the game — the unwritten rules
  • Competencies taught from one person to another
  • Habits, ways of thinking and mental models used that guide perceptions and language
  • Shared meaning, the understandings that are created as group members interact with each other.

Understanding how a firm works and how they get things done can be complicated and an intermingled web of connections. The bigger the organization, the more complex and less you will see of the big patterns of how the organization operates. This is why smaller teams tend to be more nimble. 

However, even in small teams, an individuals motivation behind their behaviors can be complex, how they feel about the team, you, the company, the people they work the closest with, their home life, their social life, their career path, sense of ownership, how they feel they are rewarded and if they are rewarded in the right way can all effect the development or direction of their behaviors.

Unwritten rules are the intended or unintended consequences of a gap in social understanding. 

In reacting to or redirecting unwritten rule of engagement, we need to look at them from a social communication perspective. Unwritten rules are usually situational and people based. They are not absolute rules for every situation.

Not everyone in the organization will feel the same way or have the same level of intensity around every unwritten rule. In the big scheme of things, not everyone will give an unwritten rule the same level of importance. For example, some people won’t care about working till 7 p.m., when the written rule is 6, there will be a range of emotions about the situation.

When an unwritten rule effects you on a personal level, it doesn’t have to ruin your day. Gauge your relationships, unwritten rules are not always set in stone, and often come about in the absence of real rule setting. Speak up, be honest about the engagement in the proper setting. Know when to approach the situation, people will connect with you differently in private then they do in public when approaching these types of change. 

 People follow unwritten rules of engagement because it often makes them feel like they are “fitting in,” rather than making waves. At the end of the day, you are still responsible for your own set of behaviors. Unwritten rules can be just as important to the change process as documented ways of working. One of the reasons process change can fail is because it conflicts with a strong institutionalized unwritten rule. 

As an individual you may not have the political capital to make these types of changes on your own. However, we can focus on strategies that can make these unwritten rules no longer hold the meaning that they have. 

These strategies can include;

Taking the point of view of others to analyze why the unwritten rule exists, to explore alternative ways of working.

  • Draw other team members, peers to get a multi-disciplinary perspective. Explore new ways of working that involve team members on both sides of the situation.
  • Look to make a connection with the person who is advocating for the unwritten rule. Look for places to agree, to connect or support them. If the rule came about because of trust issues, look for alternate ways of building trust. If the rule came about because of a communication issue, look for alternate ways of communicating.
  • Work with others to learn why the rule came about, gain new insights to build alternative ways of working.

Why should we care about uncovering these rules?

 Unwritten rules can make or break a cohesive working environment. If we don’t uncover them, talk about them and take positive action they can be the death of any project management implementation. 

Negative rules can make people fail to “own” their actions. This includes decisions we make or don’t make, actions we take or don’t take, and the gracious acceptance of the consequences of our decisions and actions. (Zaval 2011)As project managers, we not only hold ourselves accountable to the successful outcome of a project, but to a level of conduct that goes beyond mandatory standards of conduct — aspirational standards. (Zaval 2011)

The Theory Behind Integrated Methodology

Agency’s adapted integrated processes at a point where separating interactive, broadcast and traditional no-longer made sense. It was a way for agency’s to begin to coordinate marketing efforts across these platforms and to plan out how you share production resources between all of these efforts.

In reality, the idea of integrated marketing is nothing new (it’s about communicating across platforms), what was new was agency adoption of Integrated Process Methodologies as a theory for managing projects. When you think about it, adopting integrated process methodologies made sense, since creative organizations already worked in similar ways.

When to Lead, Manage or Just be a Part of a Creative Team

In today’s creative firm, you are going to work with a range of team members. The size and make up of your team is going to vary from project-to-project, agency to agency. What one person is called versus what they actual do at an agency can also be very different, just as the definition of a project manager varies widely from one agency to the next.

This is pretty natural and normal. When an agency is small, it has to be flexible. People wear a lot of hats and as the agency grows it morphs and expands based on the need for a specific specialization. 

The Mechanics of Managing Creative Projects

Before we get into the mechanics of what a project manager does (like responsibilities and stuff) we should get something clear.  This job can be hard, mind bending and stressful. Even if you are a great “technical player” as my son’s soccer coach puts it, if your interpersonal skills (team skills) aren’t there, you are not going to last long in the position.

Sometimes it can be difficult to work with others. Get to know your team, your client, and your extended co-workers. Get to know as many people in the agency that you can. If you are working in a creative environment (or any environment for that matter) you are probably working with some really interesting people. Get to know them, understand how best to work with them, and your job from a technical standpoint will be a lot easier. The same goes for you as well, let people know who you are, be a real part of the team.

Leading the Project, the Process & the Team

Let’s talk about what it really means to be a creative project manager. 

Look through any job board and the job description for creative project managers, producers, program managers, product managers and the like may seem very different. You may work in small or large teams, manage the client, or just production or projects end-to-end. To be a project manager in the big sense of the word- — and not just a traffic manager, your duties will most likely range a lot more than just the creation and management of scopes, budgets, time-lines, resources (people and objects) and project goals. 

Defining Creative Project Management

A project manager’s role is to apply his or her knowledge, skills, experience, processes and methods to achieve a projects objectives. In creative projects, where the objectives are, well, subjective, they often play the often un-discussed role in shaping the creative. A creative project’s objectives are often very undefined, and the choices you make as a project manager, can directly effect the outcome.

This is a power that can be used for both for good and evil. You can just as easily kill a creative idea or support a whole new avenue of discovery. 

The Difference Between Waterfall, Agile & Integrated Project Management in Creative Firms.

The Difference Between Waterfall, Agile & Integrated Project Management in Creative Firms.

Creative firms use a variety of project management methodologies. 

As project management methods are closely tied into the overall process that exists within an organization, organizations can get pretty creative in how they apply these methodologies. 

Sure, there are standard project management methodologies; and as an organization if you follow the standards, you really don't have to go very far to adapt and design these standards to fit your own way of managing projects.

You can borrow from what's out there already, you'll even find a bunch of process charts on this site that you can use a pretty starting point. 

The reason we adapt these standards or adapt them to be our own is so that we can set the way we work — to best fit our company's culture and the types of projects we create.

Balancing the Soft and Hard Skills Needed to be a Creative Project Manager

Let's talk about the basics of what it means to be a creative project manager.

If you've already cruised this site, I hope you get the idea that how organizations define the role and title of project managers can be very different. 

What your job description entails may also be very different. You may work in small or large teams, manage the client, or just production or projects end-to-end. To be a project manager in the big sense of the word, and not just a traffic manager your duties will most likely range from creation to management of scopes, budgets, timelines, resources (people and objects) and project goals. 

However, no matter where you stand, if you have the title or project manager or not, if you have project management responsibility, then your a project manager.

The Creative Project Manager's Toolbox

I write about process in the creative environment — a lot. However, for all the linear steps that I have diagramed on the different charts I’ve created, what we all have to understand is that the the creative process itself is really a non-linear journey.

The trick to understanding this journey is to make peace with the concept that there is no “one best way” to move through the creative process. We don’t so much as manage the creative process as guide it along and perhaps ride along with it at times...

Integrated Basics - Simple Scope of Work

One of the most important documents in a agency is the agreement between the agency and the client. Most agencies will have a standardize format in the form of a "Scope of Work" this document lays out important information regarding all areas of the agreement. It also acts as an agency estimate and financial agreement.  (As with all legal documents, please have your lawyer review any legalese.)...

The Producer - Job Description (Simple)

The Producer initiates, maintains and manages projects  on an ongoing and project basis. They direct and coordinate the day-to-day agency efforts on assigned accounts. In this role, the Producer insures that the agency provides:

  • Sound and responsible project management and planning.
  • Proper and innovative execution of work in all areas on schedule.
  • A consistently superior creative product.

The role is typically now client facing and requires a mix of project management, account services and producer type skills.

Responsibilities and Duties

The Producer has four areas of responsibility (specific duties of each are explained below)

  1. Planning, Analyzing, Evaluating
  • Develop workable budgets, work plans and realistic timetables.
  • Collaborates with the Account Team on preparation of marketing recommendations, strategies and actions for the client.
  • Reviews, analyzes and evaluates the following, relative to the client’s needs and objectives: all assigned creative projects, internal agency projects and assigned new business projects.
  • Provide client platform / business updates on a regular basis to demonstrate upcoming opportunities and threats to their business
  • Defining project scope, estimate and writing scope of works and technical specifications, works with account team in the creation of project specifications and time plans.
  • Educates account team and clients and manages their needs and expectations.
  • Determines project risk on an ongoing basis, escalates issues as needed.
  • Evaluate best team makeup for assigned projects.
  • Monitors out of scope requests, initiates additional estimates and approvals.
  1. Team Leading, Coordinating, Managing
  • Provides leadership within the agency and monitors work scope against all variables.
  • Monitors all budget and production activity on assigned projects and communicates status of each project to appropriate agency and client personnel in order to meet project deadlines.
  • Act as the team leader on all assigned projects.
  • Maintains communications with appropriate agency and client personnel to ensure positive workflow. Escalating exceptions and issues to Director level as required

Educating clients and managing their needs and expectations.

  • Keeping project status reports up to date
  • Monitoring and enforcing project constraints (schedule / scope / resources)
  • Champion internal systems for higher productivity working
  • Drive projects to final stages of completion by keeping the team both on track and highly motivated.
  1. Project & Product Management
  • Manage assigned projects, involved with client projects from start to finish, ensuring successful project completion against deadlines.
  • Provide and maintain projects status - liaising with development teams, designers and commercial staff to provide accurate updates of project statuses
  • Project quality assurance - testing and review of output, reviewing outputted deliverables against scope
  • Asset Management, sourcing through final delivery
  • Initiates and leads all appropriate project meetings.
  1. Financial & Administrative
  • Monitor all internal and external costs for assigned projects.
  • Creates and maintains all project backup, status reports, PO’s, estimates, schedules, change orders, technical and production specs, preproduction books and any other associated backup.
  • Manage vendors and talent on assigned projects - create purchase orders, monitor actual vs. budgeted costs.
  • Manage the production of new business presentations and materials as assigned
  • Manage agency internal projects and assist in preparing materials for creative presentations and meetings