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9 Tips for Managing Creative Teams

An alternative title for this article could be “Make space for creativity, investigation and failure on your team.”

As project managers, we need to balance process rigor and control with allowing our teams to do their best work with us micro-managing them. We need to apply project management processes at a higher level to give structure to the product or service delivery, but just enough structure to allow creativity and iteration to occur within the project.

Over the past decade I have managed creative teams and here are some of the lessons learned and tips that I have assembled over that period:

  1. Shield your team from as much administrative work as possible. This may include work such as: generating reports, attending status update meetings, recording time worked on specific tasks, estimating time remaining on specific tasks, etc. Keep your team focused on the most valuable tasks and where they can be most productive.
  2. Train your team in creative problem-solving techniques. Most of your team will be unfamiliar with the skills involved in creative problem-solving. Haggle with your management to invest in training sessions for your team on formal techniques such as brainstorming, lateral thinking, mind-mapping and human-centered design.
  3. Allocate time for new ideas to emerge. Try not to hold your team to unreasonable and arbitrary schedules and deadlines. Avoid managing the team with a project schedule that has tracks detailed 4-hour tasks and becomes a burden on the team to provide status updates. Instead, you should clearly communicate time-bound milestones for the completion of key phases, e.g. discovery, synthesis, ideation, prototyping, validation.
  4. Let your team do their job without the constant check-ins and oversight. Try not to hover over your staff asking for updates, or if they have issues they may want to escalate. And above all else, avoid micro-management!
  5. Stress the importance of open communication. Don’t make the team dependent on you for efficient communication and collaboration.
  6. Encourage your team to utilize you as an escalation point. Have your team try work through issues before raising to your level. Don’t make the team dependent on you for efficient communication and collaboration.
  7. Allow exploration to happen and encourage the team to share ‘learnings’ across all disciplines. Promote interdisciplinary collaboration – this is key. You should encourage cross-fertilization across all disciplines: design, engineering, business analysis, quality, support, marketing, etc. You will be surprised with the results when walls/barriers begin to fall and there is a shared understanding across the groups.
  8. Keep challenging the way your team approaches their work. Encourage team members to keep looking anew at the way they approach their work. Ask people whether they have considered alternative ways of working and what might be achieved by doing things differently. Be supportive and for those team members who are not meeting expectations, give candid feedback in private.
  9. And most importantly — tolerate risk-taking. It is inevitable with design thinking and agile models now being used on projects. Foster a team environment where failure is a learning opportunity, not something that would limit one’s career. You will not have innovation and discovery without some failure.

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In summary, make space for creativity, investigation and failure on your team.

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