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.