Balancing Good Project Management with Creative Freedom

Paul Naybour

I have often discussed whether as a project manager you need specific business or industry knowledge and experience in order to manage a project in that business/industry. Specific business knowledge can enable the project manager to talk the same “language” as project team members and to understand issues (particularly technical ones) in more depth. And yet project management as a discipline can be used in any type of business and the fundamentals of good project management apply to every industry so a professional project manager should be adaptable enough to manage any type of team.

That said there are certain businesses, particularly creative ones, where a project manager may need to consider factors outside the PM comfort zone in order to effectively manage a project without stifling the creative freedom of the project team.
Managing a team of creative professionals such as designers, musicians or artists on a project requires striking the right balance between retaining control of the project tasks and keeping sight of the final objective with allowing the team to freely develop ideas and innovations. This can be a difficult balance to achieve and yet is vital if a project is to attain a successful outcome.

Just how can you encourage the creativity and free-thinking required in certain projects whilst also retaining control of a budget and working to a defined timescale? To many this can seem an impossible task as the two can appear to be mutually exclusive but there are some key tactics that you can employ, as a project manager, to do just this.
Firstly you need to understand the personalities of the more creative people in the project team: what motivates them, what inspires them and what environment allows them to be innovative? Learn to appreciate that their talents are just as valuable as other, less creative, ones and that fostering an environment where new ideas are encouraged can open up new opportunities for the project.

Try not to be too controlling: if people are diverging from their tasks allow them some free rein to see where it will lead – you may be surprised. This doesn’t mean throwing away the schedule but simply being prepared for a little deviation along the way.
Ensure the team members know that you encourage and value their creativity and appreciate that it can open up all sorts of new opportunities for the project but also make it clear that your job is to ensure the project objectives are met and that sometimes you will have to implement some rigid controls and processes. Providing the team understand that you will only impose controls if you have to then this should not stifle their creativity.

Do, however, make the distinction between random, un-focussed ideas and high-quality ideas that lead to something concrete for the business. Make sure that the truly bright ideas are praised publicly and are well-rewarded. By aiming to drive the creativity towards a solid outcome can actually be more rewarding for the project team as they will see real results from their efforts. Creative people will only reject rigid processes if they see them as unnecessary to performing their roles – take the time to fully explain why certain processes are required. The very act of doing this will either reinforce your own belief in a particular process or make you realise that it is, in fact, unnecessary.
So create the balance needed between creative freedom and delivering real results by actively encouraging project team members to be innovative but also ensuring they understand their responsibilities and your expectations of them.

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