Facet 2 – “Creativity”

In the same way as for all the facet-specific articles, this piece will cover the following three questions:

  • What do we at Project Leaders mean by “creativity” as related to project leadership?
  • What could be the consequences of an absence of creativity in projects?
  • How can a project manager develop greater levels of creativity?

This may be one of the more contentious facets of leadership, especially as far as project management and training are concerned. Some people believe that you “either got it or you aint”. Funnily, that seems to be “self defined” much more than scientifically validated. In other words, if I dare throw in elements of creative thinking into a course or project meeting I am so often met with a mumbled fog of protest along the lines of “we’re not really the creative type”. I disagree.

I taught creative thinking to the management team at the Audit Commission for goodness sakes. I know “I’m not creative” is a myth and one that’s relatively easy to bust.

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The reservation around “developing creativity” as apposed to being born with it stems from a view that you have to live a life of abject misery or else have a twiddly moustache to be truly creative. It’s certainly not the first word that springs to mind when you’re talking about project managers – all too often quite the opposite sadly. Again, I’d say a lot of our formal project training does much to create this impression of a dry and somewhat systematic and staid subject.

So, before looking at how, if at all, a project manager can develop their creative muscle, let us clarify how the Project Leaders psychometric defines it:

“Creativity” refers to the extent to which the individual seeks novel solutions to old problems and is able to identify new problems; creative individuals are insightful and intellectually curious, they are open to new experiences and seek novelty.

We’d say a good project leader should certainly value and work to develop their creative side. Indeed isn’t the whole point of projects about “finding new solutions to old problems” or new problems? It is the key differentiator between what we call a project and the rest of “business as usual”. Surely a project manager who doesn’t value or believe themselves to possess creativity is in the wrong job, they need to find something repetitive and predictable, and fast!

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Projects are about novelty to one extent or another. Whilst methods for managing them should stay relatively constant (efficient), what goes on to make that project a reality (effective) often demands levels of creativity that would make Dali’s head spin. I was once involved in an engineering project that required a tiny but immensely powerful pump (I’ll spare you the details). The specification of which we were assured by world leading manufacturers defied physics and would be impossible to make. The project completed 4 months later (ahead of schedule of course) with a new and fully functioning and CHEAPER pump. We did not defy physics but we did apply every creative work-around imaginable which included changing the circuitry, plumbing and layout of the device in question. (what is it they say about 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration?)

Now, whilst there were moments of raw genius involved here, there was much more trial and error, and error, and error and a persistent determination to fix the problem by a dedicated collection of people, (some of whom were completely new to this sort of engineering and came with fresh heads). It has also of course redefined what’s possible in that specific area and encouraged others to think “what if?” (maybe the creative mind’s mantra?)

The truth is, creativity can be a very logical process (some techniques are listed below) and, especially for evolutionary change (as apposed to revolutionary), a logical approach is best. (more thought through, based in tested evidence, less risky etc). Call it “pragmatic” creativity if you will. (see last week’s article on pragmatism).

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At this point I’d like to refer to the separate works of Daniel Pink and Sir Ken Robinson, regular contributors to TED.com. Pink makes a compelling case to prove that traditional, pay-based “contingent” rewards (e.g. “if you do X I will give you Y”) actually stifle creative thinking, reinforcing the norm. Projects however should be rich lists of opportunities for contributors to develop creativity and motivation by taking on or assisting with work that is not their daily bread (take involvement in voluntary projects as an excellent example).

Sir Ken’s point, hilariously and forcefully made, is that all children are creative and we “grow out of creativity” primarily through the education system (e.g how highly were art and dance valued at your school?). Again, I contend that if, as Robinson claims, we still have innate creativity, projects supply ample opportunity to explore that because they come with the essential ingredient – “novelty”

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A few words about projects managed without creativity then we will conclude with some starters for how creativity can be developed.

Expect to see all or any of the following in an un-creatively managed project

  • Poor communication – important meetings will be formulaic (and dull) and eminently “missable”
  • Low motivation – if projects are not seen as excellent opportunities to stretch and develop people
  • Waste – if we run this one in much the same way as we did the last. There is always room for improvement
  • Missed opportunities – if the culture does not encourage people to ask “what if” more often. (It hasn’t done Honda any harm)
  • Competitive disadvantage – if the others ARE asking “what if”
  • Low energy – if the team are only using a small part of their thinking apparatus
  • Satisfied clients at best but never “delighted”

Gloomy hey?

So, some thoughts on developing creativity (or simply just finding it after a few years’ suppression)

  • If you tend to be a logical / linear thinker, start a creative process with a logical and linear beginning (e.g. a list). There are many creative thinking tools that start in this way and then, through various means, end up in a “creative place” (look up the morphological matrix, outrageous opposites and metaphorical attribute listing for starters)
  • Try an “action inquiry” approach to projects. Employ people in non-typical roles to encourage questions, thinking and ideas that are not the norm
  • Use a balanced scorecard system to formally measure degrees and examples of creativity applied to each project and expound these at post project review / lessons learned sessions
  • Ensure proactivity in risk assessment, allowing more time for lateral thinking around mitigation and, sometimes, turning a risk into an opportunity (remember the pump)
  • Spend time with people and projects outside your domain, these will encourage different ways of thinking you can bring to your own projects
  • Spend more time with your clients and suppliers, they are all solving different problems and sharing can create high value-creating commercial relations (and new ideas of course)
  • As with all the 7 facets, there is a cognitive-behavioural element to personal development. Be aware of “self limiting beliefs”, they’re almost always bogus but have a profound effect on performance. Next time you feel the urge to tell yourself you’re not creative don’t listen! In fact, start persuading yourself you enjoy opportunities to express your creative potential!
  • Grow a twiddly moustache (joke)

In summary, projects are all about creativity, you need to be too.