When you’re running a intellectual based production service (read: consultancy, software development, design, accountancy, etc…) the tug of war between getting it done quickly and finding a creative solution out can sometimes lead to fast, but shoddy solutions.
When people are scrambling to meet a milestone, the grind can mean the inspired solutions just are precluded. Creative thought takes time, and if the team is worried about meeting an aggressive deliverable, that constraint is going to be a higher priority than thinking outside the box to solve the root requirement, or deliver top level service to the client- like suggesting functionality. We’re not talking about Gold-plating (which is functionality that is both out of scope and doesn’t contribute value to the project), we’re talking about making recommendations based on the requirements by the resources who are doubling as SME’s in this case. Other things that can squeeze out creativity include hostile team culture, and not attributing proper reward to creative contribution.
Here’s how to deal with it!
Add in buffer for Creative Process : The client always needs the project done yesterday. As a project manager, it’s your job to manage expectations. The first reaction is to build out a tight timeline, but if there’s uncertainty or complexity, it also makes sense to add time into the process for creative problem busting.
Including them in the requirements: The articulation of requirements can be a tricky process. Batting something between the PM and the client or project sponsor can be easy, but including some key other members of the team can prove extremely useful. Collecting insight from them can be as simple as sharing the work in progress requirements document with them and asking their opinion. This should be done before they have final approval to allow for inclusion of the suggestions into scope without a change request (which may also impact budget and time).
Brainsorm: Fostering a culture of creativity can be easier than done because it takes practice, and can require people to temper a natural inclination for egoism and competition. One approach to this that the PMI suggests is the Delphi technique, which is where Industry Experts are solicited for opinion in a blind test (that is each party doesn’t know who else is submitting opinion and cannot see the other recommendations). Taken to the extrme, further anonymity can be assured by the questions being administered by a proxy or third party administrator, etc… That’s a little overkill for what we will probably use it for, but the point of the tool can remain : separate solicitation will allow people to opine unencumbered by pride, group think or grudges.
Incentivize: Include creative contribution as a KPI which then has a bonus attached to it. (One of the important traits of a KPI is that’s it’s quantifiable). If the resource sees that creative contribution has money attached to it, they will go to extraordinary effort to ensure they maximize their allowable bonus.
Embed it in the Culture: What kind of shop do you want to have? Do you want cogs churning out the work to template to keep costs and time to a minimum (and mitigating risks) or do you want a culture where ideas are not just welcomed, but expected? Not to say that putting money, time and risk mitigation aren’t important- they are vital to the operational health of a man-based production model, but demonstrating that your wallets (and your minds) are open to endogenous changes to scope, you are sending a message of creative empowerment to the team. It can be a bit of a tightrope- do you want to break even or take a small loss on a present project that inspires external accolades, or a improvement on future team performance and creativity? Depending on the client relationship or on constraints in play, you can upsell them to cover some or all the costs of after-the-fact scope changes. For example- by inclusion in Build 2, or prioritization of current scope functionality- but this is getting into the implementation instead of focussing on the top level of how to get the creativity moving.
In conclusion, creativity is one of those qualities your team likely needs to help survive. If you team is lacking, it’s difficult, but no impossible to try to start fitting that into your processes and operations to include creativity in your end solutions.