Skip to main content

Author: Bruce Gay

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.

[widget id=”custom_html-68″]

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

Project Manager as an Asset Not Taskmaster

Several months ago I participated in a lecture panel discussion at the Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design.

My role on the panel was to bring a project manager’s perspective on design projects, specifically for development of software applications in the healthcare sector. One of the key messages I shared with the graduate students was to treat their project manager as an asset or resource, not as a taskmaster.

Rightly or wrongly, people often think of project managers as the “person in charge”. They see this indvidual as juggling timelines, schedules and checklists, and handing out task assignments. However, I wanted the graduate students from the School of Design to understand that their job would be easier if they treat their project manager as a partner and a resource.

In my opinion, a good project manager helps his or her team remove roadblocks and open new paths to help the team members achieve their goals. For example, if a software developer needs a new software license or a certain piece of hardware, their project manager should be the one championing the procurement of the new resources. Or if the UX design team needs to obtain feedback from certain customers, salespeople, or product users, the project manager could make those initial introductions and assist the designers to gain access to key stakeholder groups.

[widget id=”custom_html-68″]

What if the business analysts and designers wanted to know the current set of feature priorities or the worst-offender bugs? How about what the latest data teaches us about a new product feature? The project manager should be able to provide the data or at least connect the analysts and designers with the right people who have the data.

It is our jobs as project managers to shield our teams from as much administrivia and unnecessary distractions as possible. This will allow your team members to do their best and most meaningful work.

I encourage project managers to inform your teams that they should treat you as an asset and not a task master.

What it Takes to be an Effective Project Manager

Earlier in the year, I worked on a turnaround project that needed some additional project management discipline and rigor.

One of my key responsibilities was to work with the existing project managers to help build up their skills, tools, and expertise with managing creative teams. After the initial discovery and mentoring sessions, I generated some guidance to help them focus on becoming more effective project managers.

  • Empathy and listening is key to being a successful project manager. Ask your team members “Where can I help?” and then listen to them. They will tell you where they could use help or are having issues. Helping your teams work through roadblocks is one the most important ways to demonstrate your value within your organization.
  • Be an escalation point for your teams. One of our key roles as project managers is to ensure that open action items and concerns of your team members are being addressed in a timely manner. Related to this is being accessible to your teams. If you appear too busy or unapproachable, your team members will not escalate to you in a timely manner.
  • Teams do not communicate well. It is our job to ensure that any miscommunication or delay in communication are dealt with and “beaten down” in a timely manner. If you are good at communication and promoting collaboration, you will go a long way as a project manager in your career.

  • Advertisement
    [widget id=”custom_html-68″]

  • Get your hands dirty. On every project that I have worked on, there is a lot of important work that no one team is assigned to do, yet it needs to be done for the project to be successful. Examples of this are “herding cats”, action item follow-up, procuring additional software or resources, generating drafts of documents for the team to react to, etc.
  • Think strategically and take the time to think about the bigger picture. Someone needs to help guide and focus the team on “The Goal”. Team members rely on project managers to think about the bigger picture and help align them
  • Keep a watchful eye on dependencies and their impacts on milestones. Successful project managers do not track all project activities, but rather, they focus on the key
  • Stay focused on the Top 3-4 critical issues that could delay or derail the team’s progress.
  • Make sure the team takes time to prepare for key stakeholder meetings. No matter how ready someone says they are for a key meeting, you should require your team members to conduct “dry runs” of the presentation content. At minimum, the presentation materials should be reviewed and proofread prior to sharing with stakeholders.
  • Shield the team from as much administrative work as possible. It is our jobs as project managers to keep our teams focused on the most valuable tasks and where they can be most productive.

In summary, effective project managers need to extend their expertise beyond the tools, processes, and mechanics of project management and embrace “human-centric” behaviors.

Becoming a Program Manager

I have had a several conversations recently, both with colleagues and other project management professionals, around the topic of how to become a program manager.

Here are some of my thoughts on the career progression to program management.

Program management is a natural progression for many experienced project managers. Being a successful program manager, however, is more than having a PgMP certification. Program managers are expected to manage complex projects and have the interpersonal skills to be able to navigate business strategy and executive relationships.

There are many career rewards for a career path into program management. On average, program managers have higher annual salaries, tackle greater business challenges, work closely with customers, have opportunities to mentor project managers and even grow into executive suite careers. However, steps to transition from project to program management are not always obvious and some professionals struggle with the career transition.

Is program management right for you?

From the outside, it may be difficult to know if this career path is the right one for you. Program management is not simply managing ‘larger projects’ or a group of projects or managing project managers. Programs are about business objectives and business operations. They have much longer durations than projects. Program managers need to be focused on organizational priorities and business objectives, more so than delivery of a product or service. Program managers may even need to cancel projects based on a change in strategy or lack of business benefits.

[widget id=”custom_html-68″]

How do I transition from project management to program management?

Like other transitions in life, a project manager will need new skills and a different attitude to succeed in program management. Skills such as organizational governance, strategy and navigating executive relationships are key parts of success in program management. Project managers who desire to make the transition should make their goals known to both internal and external networks and actively look for program management opportunities.

Pursuing a PgMP certification will help an individual stand out from the crowd. The real value of the PgMP certification is in the knowledge gained by studying for the certification. The preparation requires the project manager not only to study program management concepts and terminology, but to see the relevance of those terms and concepts working as a program manager.

What mindset changes are required for a transition to program management?

Taking on a program management role requires a mindset change to move from the tactical to the strategic. From my perspective, the first thing that surprised me was that I was responsible for program outcomes without having a direct line of sight to all aspects of a project as when I was a project manager. In short, I was responsible for the program’s overall success, but had to rely on others to manage the details. A change of mindset was also required.

As a program manager, there is more focus on business and the delivery of benefits. I also began to have more interaction with executive-level leadership and spent more time building relations with key stakeholders. I began to spend more time thinking about how to structure and govern the program, how to organize the projects within the program, to achieve the business strategy. I spent more time identifying and managing inter-project or inter-organizational risks.

I welcome any feedback or comments from others on their on their career transition from project to program management.

Tips for Novice Project Managers

Recently I was asked to present 30-45 minutes on the topic of “project management tips” to an IT operational department within my organization.

Most of the analysts in this department already practice some level of project management but are not well-versed in the traditional Project Management Professional (PMP) methods.

After reaching out to the PM community on for guidance and ideas on how to tailor the presentation, I received many excellent responses from colleagues.

Having reviewed my colleague’s guidance and feedback, I thought about starting the presentation with basic PM concepts: What is a project, Project work versus Operational work, What is a program, Introduction to PM process groups, etc. But given the time constraints, I decided to dive in and start with my “tips and lessons learned”, and to allow more time for Q&A from the group.

Here is a summary of my presentation to the operational department:

[widget id=”custom_html-68″]

  • Spend time up front to identify your stakeholders.
  • Understand who the project champion (or sponsor) is. Typically he/she is not the project requester, but someone whose business will benefit from or be impacted by the project.
  • Use a Scope Document to ensure everyone has a clear definition of the project. Review the Scope Document with your stakeholders.
  • Have your project champion sign off the Scope Document at the start of the project results.
  • Create a Communication Plan to manage stakeholder interactions.
  • Take time to do project planning – do not rush into execution.
  • Stay focused on dependencies and their impacts on milestones. Set milestones for your team to rally around.
  • Empathy and listening are key. Listen to your team and your stakeholders while managing the project.
  • Teams do not communicate well. It is the job of the project manager to ensure communication is working and everyone is kept informed.
  • Scalation is a powerful tool. Escalate issues and risks, in a timely manner and be sure to escalate the right things.
  • Remain vigilant of scope creep. Be prepared to conduct what Project Managers call “Scope Change Management”: Assess the request and communicate impacts of the change to the project sponsor. If the request or change is quite different or larger than the original project scope, recommend a new project be set up to manage fulfillment of the request.
  • Lastly, make sure everything on your project plan has an owner. Do not end meetings without action items and clearly defined owner.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to share my project management skills with the operational department. In the end, feedback from the group was positive and I am hopeful that I contributed in some way to their professional growth.