Project Management

You Can Be Creative, But Don’t Be Dumb

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The central problem when discussing creativity in the Project Management realm (’s theme for February) is that we’re looking at two very different sides of the same coin. On the one hand, you have the templates, procedures, and canned strategies germane to the PM universe, including Work Breakdown Structures (WBSs), Earned Value and Critical Path Methodologies (EVM and CPM, respectively), Scope Management, and all the rest of the codex in the PMBOK Guide®. As anyone who has endured the PMP® examination process can attest, these concepts are all rather formalized and structured. However, the other hand is a very different schema indeed, where it’s common knowledge among PM practitioners that the ability to bring in a project on-time, on-budget is heavily reliant on finding innovative solutions to the unexpected problems that arrive with a bang at the PM’s front door, solutions that rarely have a standardized, template response. “How shall we find the concord of this discord?” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). I think that the central question to finding the balance between what’s regarded as standardized techniques in approaching Project Management problems and having the management latitude to do whatever the heck the nominal PM wants to do hinges on one question: Does it work?

Not to put too fine a point on this, but I would like to point out the two criteria for evaluating whether or not something can be considered scientific, even in Management Science space:

  • It has to be observable. Explaining phenomena that no one can perceive is as useless as arriving at an 80% confidence interval on a risk analysis.
  • It has to be repeatable in an experimental setting. Theories that “explain” one-off occurrences are always suspect.

Based on this criterion, establishing the WBS early in the project is scientifically sound. This technique has been shown to serve well as the basis for the subsequent cost and schedule baselines time and again, while project work bereft of the same is almost always given to failure for any but the smallest, simplest of projects. Likewise, both Earned Value and Critical Path analysis are pretty standard for all but the most basic projects – if you want to have a fighting chance of bringing them in on-time, on-budget, that is. Which brings us to addressing our dichotomy: when is adopting a creative management strategy, nominally at odds with the standardized approach to managing a project well, a good idea? As GTIM Nation knows, any Game Theorist worthy of the name (and initial caps) will resort to a payoff grid, so:



Doesn’t care enough


Uses tools that work

Might be successful anyway (1)

“Creativity” wins (2)

Listens to the asset and risk managers

“Creativity” is clearly being used as a dodge (3)

Isn’t really a PM, is he? (4)


In Scenario 1, the “Doesn’t care enough” bin doesn’t mean that the subject PM is visibly lackadaisical. It very well could be that they are simply so entrenched in their own approaches to PM problems that they can’t be convinced to abandon said approaches. When those canned strategies actually work, then these may be successful in spite of a lack of consideration of alternate, creative tactics.

The PM who cares enough to use tools known to work, but keeps an open mind when either they themselves or a member of the Project Team suggests a novel solution or approach, is going to be highly successful. This scenario is closest to describing The Gamesman archetype from Michael Maccoby’s brilliant work The Gamesman: The New Corporate Leaders (Simon and Schuster, 1976), which, based on Maccoby’s research, consistently experiences the most success.

Now, about that “don’t be dumb” mention in the blog’s title: if the named PM isn’t sufficiently motivated to do what it takes to bring in the project’s scope on-time, on-budget, one way of avoiding the use of the PM tools known to enhance success would be to listen to the Earned Value and Critical Path naysayers, and point to a “creative” management approach that eschews these tools. Experienced Project Controls Analysts have seen this scenario play out time and again, and, yes, they think those PMs trying to pull it off are dumb. Really dumb.

Finally, if the named PM really wants to perform well on the project, but only listens to our friends the Accountants and risk managers on how to do so, then they’re not really doing Project Management at all, but pursuing an obviously deficient derivative.

And I don’t do obviously deficient derivatives in this blog.


Posted on: February 03, 2020 10:35 PM | Permalink

Comments (4)

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Quite a post....Thanks, Michael.

Dear Michael
Interesting your perspective on the topic: "You Can Be Creative, But Don’t Be Dumb"

Thanks for sharing

Important point to highlight:
"The PM who cares enough to use tools known to work, but keeps an open mind when either they themselves or a member of the Project Team suggests a novel solution or approach, is going to be highly successful"

don't be dumb!?!? I'm out

Great Topic, You Can Be Creative, But Don’t Be Dumb, thank you for sharing,

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