The Creative Process for Managing Projects

6 surprising similarities between project management and art

June 14, 2018 | Helen S. Cooke

watercolor paintingSometimes people assume a project manager is simply an administrator who tracks the progress of a project team’s work against an established schedule. But that’s the role of a schedule administrator, not a project manager. Project management is actually, in many ways, a highly creative endeavor.

A high-level, full-fledged project manager is typically skilled at creating a process for carrying out a project from its inception through its delivery of final results. Project management is inherently creative because projects are typically formed to create something that is distinctly different from what has been done before. If it has been done before, it is operations, not a project. In project management, predicting what may go wrong and why, avoiding risk, and resolving unexpected problems are all part of the process. When a project works well and everything goes as expected, we are tempted to think it was really quite simple. But projects are seldom simple. That is why the people who choose to be project managers thrive on putting order on chaos. They actually like this type of work.

The process of project management has surprising similarities to the process of the creative artist. The artist, like the project manager, is tasked with creating something distinctly new. The artist employs knowledge, skill, talent, foresight, and careful management of options and resources. Let’s take a look at the parallels in more detail:

1)   High-Level Planning  

Both artists and project managers must make strategic and detailed plans before beginning the work.

The artist choosing to create a watercolor painting needs to decide the size and shape of the paper that will best suit the subject being painted. This includes decisions about the texture of the surface, the length and width of the cut paper, and the weight of the paper. Wide paper that is not so tall creates a calming painting, tall paper that is not so wide creates a painting that excites or inspires, and so on. In order to make these decisions, the artist needs to have a clear vision, in advance, of what the subject matter will be and how it will be best portrayed. The artist might also need to know the intended purpose and audience for the end product. Who (if anyone) has commissioned the painting? Where will it be displayed? What criteria will be used to determine if the painting is a success?

Likewise, when a project manager approaches a new project, many decisions must be made before the project itself begins. The project manager must decide how long the project will last, when it can start, and whether it can finish before the end product becomes obsolete. The tools to run the project need to be selected. The parameters of the project depend largely on complex considerations about where and by whom the product will be used. Who will receive the project’s end product? Will it be too expensive to suit the sponsor? How will the results stand up over time? This planning process often involves exciting, strategic, creative plans. Simply using the tools and templates that are easiest to acquire will no more satisfy a project manager than a paint-by-numbers kit satisfies an artist.

2)   Understanding the Context  

In preparing to paint, an artist who has already selected the painting’s subject matter and paper will begin to think more about the palette of paints to be used. The selection of color will depend on the end goals. Will this be a modern or traditional piece? Some colors invoke history. Others reflect contemporary palettes. Will the landscape be winter—cool blues and yellows for snow and dull browns and deep greens for winter foliage? Will there be light clouds? Stormy darks? Pale, foggy air? Will the end picture be smooth and homogeneous in texture, or will there be uneven parts where paints do not mesh or where details vary from one end of the piece to the other? The artist must consider the effect of damp or dry air on how fast the paint dries, or the tendency of some paints to drip or run more easily with the effects of gravity. In making her decisions, the artist must creatively, and strategically, combine an understanding of the end goals with an understanding of the tools at her disposal.

In preparing to implement the plan for a project, the project manager must make creative decisions by understanding the context of the project’s implementation. Will the project be implemented in an organization with established, traditional methods and values of work? Or will it occur in an entrepreneurial setting where people appreciate the complexity and volatility of new methods? Will the resources be ample, or tightly controlled? Will team leads need to be able to manage team conflict and customer interference? Should there be a prototype to test the model and time to revise the plan if necessary? In figuring out the answers to these questions and more, the project manager must have a sophisticated understanding of the many contexts and parameters surrounding implementation of the project.

3)   Decisions of Time and Sequencing  

Now that the artist has selected her subject, paper, and paints, she must make decisions regarding the timing and sequencing of the painting. Which part of the painting should she begin with? How long should she spend on which portion of the painting? Some sections might need to be painted together to maintain continuity. There may need to be complex structures, vanishing points, or areas of visual interest that use similar colors. Should the background be painted first? What about the key points of interest, where bright colors capture the eye? There are many possible strategies for sequencing. Sections can be developed separately. The artist might progress light to dark, or large in scale to smaller, or back to front, top to bottom. The choice of what can be painted simultaneously will shape work periods. Unexpected occurrences may require revisiting the plan or possibly making major changes. No plan works out exactly as it is expected to.

The project manager who has already established the scope and boundaries of a project must now establish the size and sequence of project phases. Will the plan reach completion within established timeframes and using available resources? If not, what can be changed as the work progresses? Within the plan, the segments of work must be placed in proper order, and the team will need to confirm whether the success of some later tasks will depend on the outcome of earlier tasks’ outputs. Are there decisions that require approval or input from the customer before moving forward? Are there parts that, once begun, are difficult or impossible to change? Are there points in the project where it would be wise to reassess the overall plan? Can some parts be eliminated if necessary? These questions and more inform the complex, creative process of sequencing a project.

4)   Planning for Unpredictability

While composing a painting, some artists make tactical plans to head off unpredictability. Not everything will turn out as expected. The character and success of the end product will begin to emerge as work progresses. Some parts, once painted, will be difficult or impossible to change. It might be a good strategy to paint the background first while leaving the fine details for later. How can the artist leave flexibility in details for later in the development of the final work? Will the customer care if the overall painting varies significantly from what was begun? As the painting progresses, the artist must continually assess what has already been produced, and this helps inform future decisions and changes to the ongoing process.

Projects, too, can be structured for flexibility, and the work carried out in such a way that necessary future changes are not precluded by early actions. The structure of the project schedule and the points where deliverables need to be assessed can be established up-front during planning. Intact segments of completed work can be developed and sequenced so that adjustments can be made to the pace and order of work if necessary. The review process can be structured in a way that ensures that once key decisions are made, there are still contingencies in place for unexpected challenges.

5)   Quality Begins to Emerge

In art, once the painting is underway, the skill of the artist becomes obvious. Emphasis and accuracy, desirability and credibility of the images, sophistication of the color mix and compatibility of the layers, close objects and softer distances begin to emerge. There are also moments of brilliance, and even spontaneous, unexpected effects. A few mistakes will happen along the way, and hopefully the choice of materials and sequencing of tasks allow for creatively-inserted changes. The artist will need to correct obvious errors or find ways to mitigate accidents. But skill combined with creativity help ensure that even if there are errors, the end result will be positive.

Likewise, the skill of the project manager becomes more visible once the product takes shape. Not only the team, but executives, sponsors and clients as well will sense whether the project manager selected by executive management was up to the task. There will be periods of drudgery, perhaps, with few obvious signs of progress. But with risks under control, variables carefully watched, reports assessed for signs of needed change, and reviews moving forward, good things will suddenly begin to occur. The quality might stay high. The work might proceed ahead of schedule. Resources might be used at a rate that resembles what was predicted. Team members work well together. All of these positive outcomes are evidence of the skill and creativity of the project manager’s work in each of these areas of management responsibility.

6)   Recognition of a Quality End Product

Not every painting is a masterpiece, but many are worth the expense of time and talent the artist put into it. Artistic masterpieces are touted in exhibits and placed in areas where people can see them, enjoy them, and wonder at the talent and expertise of the artist. Lesser – though well-executed – works are purchased and enjoyed in smaller venues like homes and offices.

Likewise, in project management, the really exemplary projects are recognized, publicized, and recommended for awards. Project managers and teams are featured in professional magazines. Less spectacular, but high-quality, projects produce valuable results all across society. If the outcome is not so great, in both art and projects there are lessons learned. Changes are made to project templates or project policy. Talent and teams move on. Roles are redefined. Perhaps an article or two can alert others to unexpected risks to avoid. Books can be written to highlight the methods that actually work. Projects, like artworks, tap into the complex mix of knowledge, wisdom, experience, skill, self-control, and specialized technique of the practitioner. Both rely on process, a deep understanding of the limits and potential of people and resources, and adequate specialized knowledge to produce quality work.

Project managers know that the creative aspects of their role are the most challenging, and also the most rewarding. Producing quality projects requires self-development, self-awareness, the humility to step up to error, and, occasionally, even the courage to take a leap, try something new, and create wondrous, unexpected outcomes.

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  • About The Author
  • Helen S. Cooke is a 20-year project management veteran with experience in Fortune 500 companies, universities, the service industry, manufacturing, government, military and defense. She is a PMP® and a PMI® Fellow, and an experienced management consultant. She has worked on five continents and was elected a Fellow of the Project Management Institute in 2005. Helen was a PMI officer and served six years on PMI’s Global Board of Directors.

    Helen led a profit and loss practice at Deloitte for 10 years, was a mid-level manager in the federal government, and was a university administrator. She headed the Project Management Center of Excellence at McDonald’s Corporation and implemented SEICMM Level 2/3 and a PMO at United Airlines. She has taught project management systems at the graduate level at Keller Graduate School and a PMO course at DePaul University in Chicago. She is the author of several books about project management and organizational project management maturity.