The Art of Project Management in a creative space

Sonya Madden

Sonya Madden – Senior Creative Project Manager

So you have been given a project brief or scope of work (SOW), the deadline, the budget and your team has been assigned.

The triple constraint (time, money, scope) are locked in.

You schedule your initial project meeting to discuss the SOW with the team… your creative team…. and watch as one by one they articulate their ideas and concerns… you begin to feel your perfect project plan slipping through your fingers like sand.

You begin to think that bringing this project in on time and within budget is an impossible task and that they need to assign the project to someone else, anyone else, just not you!

I’m here to reassure you that it is possible to succeed and that you are the perfect project manager for this job!

Project Management within the creative industry is my area of strength. I have been working in this space for over a decade.

I have managed projects for print (newspaper, reports, branding, etc.) CD-ROM and DVD multimedia, broadcast and web. The core fundamental principles apply as with any project management job but for creative projects, and therefore creative team members, some of the fundamentals need to bend.

Below are my top tips (not all, just some) for insuring your project and your team hit deadline and stay within budget…. and it insure the process is enjoyable for all people involved. The last thing we want is a project manager that no one wants work with again.

Tip # 1. Mutual Respect.

Yes project management is about insuring the budget is tracking and milestones are achieved, but within constraints often emerges the brightest ideas, and those ideas may require a little flex on your part. Creative people think outside the box – or more correctly, outside the spread sheet! In this instance, the box is most likely what you have been commissioned/asked/told to deliver – or what your client is expecting the final outcome to be/look like. You may find that the creative teams solution is not what was originally requested, in fact it could be better (well hopefully it is better!). Be prepared to go in and do battle for your creative team and sell the new idea to your stakeholders. Just as you have your strength as a awesome project manager, your team members each have their own strengths and they should not be ignored or overlooked. Be prepared to support their ideas (providing it can be done with the most critical element, i.e., time or budget) and present them with confidence to the stakeholders. Your team will respect the project manager that respects them. You will find that as the project progresses, having your teams respect will most likely result in team members working those extra few hours on a Friday, or staying that late night to insure a milestone is achieved, and do so without complaint.

Tip # 2. Identify your contingency and mark it “for emergency use only” 

We will assume your project budget is already defined and approved (I will discuss how in another post as I do not want to get side tracked). You have your days and dollars and the break down for what is to go where. At the start of the project it all looks achievable and lines up perfectly.  Your project kicks off. Numbers begin to shuffle around accommodating the creative team’s brilliant idea. People begin to make assumptions rather then check facts. Your client changes the scope. Your spread sheet starts to become redundant. Now if you did NOT set aside your contingency right now, things would be looking pretty ugly. However at the start of the project you identified a contingency budget that was no less than 20%. That 20% was set aside. It was not available for the first half of your project. Your team works within 80% of the original budget. All is going well and you reach the last quarter of the project life cycle and then ‘IT’ happens.

‘It’ is when the developers notice a massive bug in the system which will require hours to resolve. Or your designer spots a typo in the files already sent to the printer that are going to need amendments. Rely on the fact there will be something unexpected and then take a deep breath and know you were prepared. Your 20% contingency can be utilised for an emergency re-print of those flyers, or extra programming time to iron out the kinks. Whatever is needed, in setting aside the time/budget from the beginning – you have it covered! And heh, if you have a dream run with no little surprises towards the end, then that 20% is your profit. Bonus!

Tip #3. When time is not your friend

Not all projects have hard deadlines (and for those new to the world of project management, a hard deadline is a end date that cannot be missed under any circumstances – for pain of death!! kidding). Hard deadlines are fairly common in the creative industry. Entire marketing campaigns or product launches across multiple mediums often run simultaneously – all hinged on a unified launch date, or hard deadline. In these instances a deadline cannot be missed. This is only one example. You may be responsible for a project with no dependencies and therefore your stakeholders are comfortable moving the deadline to insure a better product or end deliverable (heaven!). In either instance do not overlook simple things like team members taking leave, public holidays and or festive seasons when scheduling and managing timeline’s. I cannot tell you how many times I have committed to delivering a milestone over a festive season that was ‘crucial’ to the client only to receive an out of office reply saying they are unavailable for the next 4 weeks. Very frustrating! Your stakeholder’s availability will be as important as your team member’s availability. If you have the rare scenario of a friendly client who takes no leave and a team committed to working through holiday periods, then I envy you, but remember, sometimes unpredictable things just happen. For example, your creative lead is knocked out with the flu. Or your client realises his budget evaporates EOFY (end of financial year) and requires the final deliverable 2 weeks ahead of schedule. Good PM’s are one step ahead of the game and have enough movement in their timeline to accommodate whatever eventuates. Add some padding to time frames while scheduling. Factor in downtime due to holidays and or peak seasons. Check your client’s schedule. Make time your friend and be prepared.

Tip #4. Quality Assurance

Let me first state that efficiency does not excuse sloppiness. Efficiency is just that, being efficient. It does not allow for things to be missed and there is only one way to avoid this… Do not skip testing or QA (quality assurance) process EVER! A helpful tip with testing – have your testing process undertaken by someone who has not worked on the project previously = fresh eyes. Ask a colleague to look over it, or click through the content. Ask them to make note of anything they think is not working correctly, or appears a little off, or perhaps does not work at all. Get your office junior to scan through the text to see if any typos or spelling mistakes have been missed. If you are delivering a digital product that supports both Mac and PC environments, then make sure you test the product on both systems (sounds simple, but so often not done). Do not short cut this phase. This is the last chance for your project deliverable to get a once over before leaving your hands. Nothing is more deflating to an excited client then spotting a spelling mistake in his long awaited new business cards, or a wrong logo in the media presentation your team spent months developing. Taking the time to test, and to have ‘fresh eyes’ test for you will save you a horrid scene in the boardroom that leaves you wishing you could dissolve into a puddle under the table. Quality assurance is just that, assuring your project deliverable is QUALITY! Test and review! Don’t skip it.

Tip #5 Celebrate completions!

In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, a projects completion/sign-off/delivery can slip by without any recognition very easily but because you are a star creative project manager, this won’t happen on your project! Whether it is a simple “drinks after work”, or a morning tea, or a big blow out dinner and party – the end of every project should be marked. This is an opportunity for people to celebrate their part on completing the project while debriefing informally. You may find team members seek you out to offer insight about things that could be done differently next time, or something they think worked particularly well. By all means have a drink and celebrate too but do not get lashed. Listen and observe and learn. These people worked on the same project as you but all had a very different view point. You may discover something that will help make the next project an easier run or a bigger success. Your team worked hard. Let them have a bit of fun and mark the occasion. It is also a nice way to conclude a project with a high note regardless of what went down during the project’s life cycle.

Project Management is not for everybody and not something everyone is good at. Some people are just naturally inclined to administration and mentally juggling things around – like me! Creative project management is often overlooked because the process from the outside appears quiet organic. Do not be fooled. Project Management fundamentals are there, they have just been adapted.

If you are new to the world of project management, as the saying goes, first know the rules before you break, or in our case, bend them.

I recommend completing Project Management training at either a graduate school or college. You may find that allot of this material is directed towards the construction industry (as I discovered) but that is fine – the core principles are the same – we just have the advantage of less threatening stakes at risk.

If you would like my recommendations on courses, books or examples of project management please leave your comments below.

I am also open to any feedback, insights, ideas or challenges to this material.

But for now, happy managing!

One thought on “The Art of Project Management in a creative space

  1. […] the “Project Management Daily” – click the image below to check it out or see me original post here. Project Management Daily – my story featured Creative Project Management Share […]

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