The Practical Side of Creativity – An Innovative Arsenal For Project Managers


“Whom the gods wish to destroy, they give unlimited resources.” – Twyla Tharp

When I’m not consulting or managing projects, some of my time is spent teaching MBA classes at Drake University.  The fact that I teach both project management AND creativity for business creates consternation among some of my friends and colleagues.  After all, can a project manager really be creative?  Aren’t those mutually exclusive skills?

My response is a great project manager also must excel at creativity to remain a viable, valuable asset in today’s marketplace.  Gone are the days of simply managing scope within a budget and schedule; project managers must be multi-faceted utility players.  Project and program managers are being expected to create solutions, to facilitate conflicts, and to motivate resources toward a goal in ways never before anticipated.

As I write this article, the stock market is in the tank.  Large employers are laying off human capital in droves.  People are nervous (and excited and hopeful) about new national leadership.  And our lament of “doing more with less” has become even more acute than ever.  Whether you are managing a multi-million dollar business integration project or a job search in an extremely tender market, you will use creativity (you just may not realize it).

Before we progress further, let’s debunk some creativity myths which seem to get in the way of the ever ubiquitous “thinking outside the box”:

  • I used to be creative, but that’s when I was a kid.  (We’re all naturally creative, but many of us let the creative muscles atrophy in our journey to adulthood.)

  • Creativity is for painters and musicians and granola-lovers; I’m a project manager.  (Some of my most creative expressions have been during projects… the canvas changes; the skills don’t.)

  • My boss/job/culture/department won’t let me be creative.  (C’mon… you’re an adult… are you waiting for a permission slip???  Maybe all of these stakeholders are waiting for you to step up to the plate.)

Just as project managers and business analysts follow a process to get their objectives from start to finish, so do creators.  Short-circuiting this process happens too frequently and often results in hastily-considered and inadequate solutions, which may or may not address the problem.  As with other areas of our lives, there is an easy acronym to remember this process:


The first two, search and invent, represent divergent thinking, or generating many possibilities.  The last two, test and execute, are convergent thinking processes, which help to narrow down the possibilities.  The project manager can use each of these to identify and define scope, to resolve issues, to create presentations, or solve a plethora of problems which arise during the course of a project.


During the Search phase, you’re looking for … well… just about anything.  You might search for answers or for more questions.  You might be looking in different industries and companies or right under your own nose.  Your objective is inspiration.  This isn’t something you can necessarily plan or control; inspiration may hit you when you least expect it.  Therefore, it’s good to be prepared and document or capture those “ah-ha” moments so you can retain them for later.  Choreographer Twyla Tharp calls this process “scratching,” kind of like a chicken pecking for food.  You’re not sure what you’ll find; you’re just looking.

In project management, I’ve found inspiration for solutions in everything from Dr. Seuss to 1980’s movies, from sorting laundry to playing with my children.  A different perspective can do wonders.  I once facilitated a brainstorming session with a group of insurance/financial services professionals to come up with new product ideas.  The start was slow, until I showed them a “Road Runner” cartoon.  When I asked them to pretend Wyle E. Coyote was their new client, the ideas for new products and services seemed to explode.  You can use this technique to gain better stakeholder perspective on your projects.  Just use your favorite character and ask your team how this individual would approach the problem.

Whenever I manage a merger-acquisition project, I start out with a Google search on the phrase “[company name] sucks.”  This is my way of searching for complaints and criticisms about the culture or people.  This same technique can help you search for information about new methodologies or vendors as well.  You can also do searches on “Six Sigma failed because” or “Lean doesn’t work” or “Avoid [Vendor name]” – each of these will help you gain a broader view.


The Invent phase is the core of creativity; it’s where you are building or making something new.  This is a struggle for some people, as they don’t think anything new can be created.  King Solomon expressed this sentiment best:  “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.  Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look! This is something new’? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10 NIV).

Here’s the rub of creativity… yes, it has all been done before.  The paradox is that it has not all been combined that way before.  You have accumulated a lot of building blocks from your search.  How you rearrange and retool those building blocks is the key to expressing creativity.

A few years ago, I was assigned to a HIPAA compliance program (insert irrepressible yawn here).  After completing the process changes part of the project, I was tasked with the training project, which had to be rolled out to 3,000 employees nation-wide within three months.  I’m a law-enforcement geek, so I suggested we create the entire training video like an episode of the Fox Reality TV show, COPS.  The suggestion clicked, and within a matter of weeks, we had a script, actors, and a videographer all in place.  The client loved the concept.  Legislative compliance wasn’t new.  Training videos were old hat.  The TV show, COPS, had been out for many years.  It was the combination of these three which made a creative solution.  To help my students learn how to combine, I send them on scavenger hunts; they see first-hand how to merge their building blocks.


The Test Phase gets a lot of exercise already.  Many people are ready to criticize another’s creativity, often without giving it due diligence.  Recently, I got into a debate with a peer who publicly criticized a local company for a creative approach to generating business, not because it was morally or ethically wrong but merely because their approach wasn’t how he would have done it.

It is important to test our creative impulses to ensure they add business value.  However, the trick is to strike a balance between being overly critical and overly permissive; within this range is the point at which creativity is adequately assessed and appropriately modified to fit a business need.

Try this on your next deliverable review:  Whenever somebody has a criticism on a document, deliverable, or PowerPoint, ask them to generate three alternatives.  This approach facilitates buy-in, and it keeps the process of testing positively focused.  Instead of just tearing another person’s creativity down, you are using the Testing phase to make the creation even better.


The Execute Phase should be easy for the project manager; it is where creativity is implemented.  Project managers love to implement things, and their desire to meet a deadline makes them a great fit for this phase.  However, issues such as lack of courage, commitment, and resources often stall our creative urges in that nasty zone known as “paralysis by analysis.”

Overcoming our fears – most often a fear of failure or the fear of change – is a key element to success.  We all talk a good game on the PDCA cycle (Plan-Do-Check-Act) until it comes time to “Do” and “Act” and then things fall apart.  Leadership author Steve Farber talks about audacity and proof as key components of leadership; one has to take action and move eventually or it’s all just talk.  We all know people who are going to write a book… some day.

Sometimes, execution is simply a case of getting started.  Inscribed in stone in the lobby of the John F. Kennedy Museum is a powerful excerpt from his inaugural speech:  “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days.  Nor will it be finished in the first 1000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet.  But let us begin.”  JFK knew the importance of execution, of stepping into the unknown with our uncharted plans.  In projects, we can help this phase along through pilots and prototypes, both of which help us prove our points before we sell a full-scale execution.

So, as a project manager or as a business analyst, are you prepared to improve your SITE to ramp up creativity on your projects?  In this economy, in this business environment, can you afford not to?

Author: "Timothy L Johnson, PMP is Chief Accomplishment Officer of Carpe Factum, Inc. (Latin for “Seize the Accomplishment”). He has 20 years of experience helping individuals and organizations achieve their critical accomplishments through project management and process improvement efforts. His clients include Harley-Davidson, Wells Fargo, Principal Financial Group, ING, and Teva Neuroscience. He is an Adjunct Professor in the College of Business and Public Administration at Drake University. He is the author of two books; his third is due out by the end of 2009. His home is Des Moines, Iowa."



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