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.

As project managers we really do learn how to manage creative projects through practice — and through that learning we get to keep the best ideas for navigating the creative journey in our own tool box.

If I look inside my own tool box I might find some tools that are well worn, others that I look at and wonder what I originally bought them for, some that are just great hand-me downs, and possibly a bunch of those little “L” shaped wrenches we all have, from assembling things from flat packed boxes.

We use these tools to build and create useful things, like the starting points of projects and major landmarks to help point the way. We also use them to tweak things here and there, to help support the discovery phase, ideation phase and implementation. I also like to keep a big old sledgehammer around, it’s helpful for knocking things down and out of the way. Clearing the way and breaking down barriers is a big part of a project managers responsibility.

At the start, I try and build for others something simple, like space to think. A place where people can get together to learn about a project where they can share ideas, explore the problem and inspire each other. I want to make sure it’s also a place where it is ok if people want to bring out their own little sandboxes. At the discovery phase, project managers often feel like they are not a part of the process. I disagree, what project managers, or account people, or producers do at this stage has everything to do with shaping the final journey.

Sure, I may have a list of recommended materials and some basic requirements, but part of the creative process is knowing that there will always be times when the recommended starting materials make no sense. But I also believe that without constraints design and creativity is less likely to happen.

This is why the ideation phase is so important. This is where we generate, develop and test ideas. As project managers, we can help by using our tool set to assist in the testing out the basic assumptions of a project. To discover which constraints are important and helping to establish a way of evaluating them.

We can also assist by encouraging and supporting testing of rapidly making prototypes. Part of what a creative leader needs help with is encouraging the team to try different approaches. This is where it is vital to share all the tools in our box, all of our processes that we have or at our disposal, to encourage collaboration and team learning.

As much as we use our tool box to build, we also use it to measure and set benchmarks. There comes a time, when playing in the sand or simply drawing things or building prototypes is not enough, we need to start building something for real. As project managers we can recognize the signs for creative ideation departure, but we also need and can actively measure against it. This is why I write about the importance of creative briefs. Sure, meeting the brief is always open to interpretation, but project managers are also team facilitators who have the responsibility to make sure the team is ready and able to move on to the next stage, and that the creative output is in balance with the intended business objective (hence the importance of a real brief). That doesn’t mean we always stop to tweak or question what we are implementing. Continued learning at this stage is extremely important, and will help us to build things in the future.

A project or creative manager has to recognize when to response to unexpected issues or opportunities, and often theses moments happen at the implementation stage. It’s also goes hand-in-hand with the idea of crafting. When I take out my tools to start building, I use some to build a frame, others to box it in, and even finer tools to smooth out the edges. Craft happens at all these stages, how we build something and how we execute can make a big difference in how successful the final project becomes.

There is a big difference between testing and retesting something that is built with care, than just using some finishing process to shine a turd. What tools do you have in your tool box?