A Broad Guide to Creative Project Management

Every once in a while it’s important to take a step back and look at things from a broad perspective, and that’s as true for project management itself as it is for any project you work on. Whether you’re an ad agency or a software developer, the creative industries are very different from the industrial ones, and they demand different management techniques. Let’s take a look at some of the key insights. I hope this is just as helpful a refresher for veterans as it is an intro for newcomers.

Understand Knowledge Work

Some have called our current era the Third Wave of human economic development after the Agricultural and Industrial Ages. Enter the Knowledge Age, sometimes called the information economy. As we leave the industrial age, we leave old management techniques behind, because the nature of the product is very different. According to Peter Drucker (loosely), these are some of the most important differences between knowledge workers and industrial workers:

  • Visibility: The product of an industrial worker is visible, while the product of a knowledge worker is invisible, or at least difficult to measure.
  • Specialization: Industrial work is highly specialized, even monotonous, while knowledge work is more holistic (though it can still certainly require specialization).
  • Stability: Industrial work exists in a stable environment, where efficiency and productivity are the key performance indicators. Knowledge work exists in an unstable environment, where adaptivity and innovation are key.
  • Decisions: Industrial work decisions are made beforehand (big design up front) and enforced through structure. Knowledge worker decisions are made constantly and too much structure can interfere with them.
  • Answers: Industrial work places more emphasis on finding the right answer to the most obvious questions. Knowledge work places more emphasis on asking the right questions in the first place.
  • Tasks: Industrial work defines tasks, while knowledge work seeks to understand tasks.
  • Standards: Industrial work seeks to meet or exceed strictly defined standards, while knowledge work uses innovation to discover niches where those standards no longer apply.
  • Quantity and Quality: This one’s probably obvious. Industrial work’s about quantity, knowledge work’s about quality (though both matter).
  • Cost: Industrial workers are treated like costs. Knowledge workers are treated like assets.

So, how can you tell if you are dealing with knowledge workers, not industrial workers? They tend to have these traits:

  • The knowledge worker is responsible for their own productivity
  • Continuous innovation is a key component of the work
  • Continuous learning is, therefore, also unavoidable
  • The knowledge worker must want to work for you in preference to the alternatives available (they’re assets).
  • The quality of the work is at least as important as the quantity

I think it’s safe to say that all creative industries are dealing with knowledge workers. So let’s talk strategy.

Manage Self-Organizing Teams

This concept is still new and scary to a lot of managers, in part because of a misconception that it makes management obsolete. The reality is different: a manager of creative workers is a manager of “ecosystems.”

In other words, the modern manager is the expert in how self-organizing teams work. They don’t micromanage every element of the process, they use metrics and intuition to understand how the process works. Then they tweak the process in subtle ways in order to ensure that the team organizes itself in the most productive way.

Self-organization is best suited to creative work because creativity can’t be imposed from on high. It can be incentivised in some circumstances (see below), but the process isn’t linear enough to micromanage.

This is one reason why it’s better to choose online project management software over complex project manager software like MS Project. Basecamp and alternatives to it like WorkZone, and of course Function Point, are a much better bet.

The reason? Knowledge workers who don’t specialize in project management can easily learn how to use a tool like Function Point. This ensures that they remain a part of the management process and are able to self-organize in a way that is measurable to project managers.

Incentivize Carefully, If At All

While studies have shown that incentives can be used to encourage creativity, the approach needs to be very nuanced. More important than anything else, it needs to be explicitly clear that the incentive is for creative work, not productivity. If this isn’t made explicitly clear, the incentives can actually result in less creative work.

It’s also important to recognize that creativity incentives don’t always work, even when they are explicit. If the challenge is difficult enough, studies suggest that incentives don’t influence the number of highly creative ideas, they only cause workers to filter out their less creative work (which can, of course, still be beneficial).

Plan Specific Work in Short Iterations

While long view goals should be kept in mind at all times, detailed plans should rarely be made past one or two weeks. Task dependencies can make it easier to adjust plans as they come, but even they can only accommodate so much.

The iterative approach is ideal because it gives your team the chance to learn from the work itself. Prototypes are a key part of any creative process because they help your team develop an understanding of how the end product is going to work and how consumers are going to interact with it.

Attempting to do everything in full detail the first time around is almost always going to backfire. This is as true for software development as it is for putting together a display ad or a content marketing strategy.

Each iteration should give you a working product, even if it isn’t the ideal one. The reason for this is that you will also need to set long-range objectives that more traditional firms and teams within your own organization can work with. Most clients or company divisions are going to expect delivery on a specific date that they can plan for. You need to be sure you have a working product with each iteration in order to meet these deadlines no matter what.


This clearly isn’t an exhaustive list, but it should already be clear that creative management of company culture is a dynamic process. Strict hierarchies aren’t suited to knowledge work, but managing self-organizing teams with subtle intervention, incentives, and careful iterations, is obviously hard work.

What are your thoughts on this guide, and management in creative firms in general?

Guest Author Bio:

Pratik Dholakiya is Director of SEO & VP of Marketing at E2M Solutions, a full service internet marketing and SEO consulting company. He’s a serial guest blogger and so far has contributed in Search Engine Journal, SEOmoz, ProBlogger, SearchEnginePeople and many others. He also writes at E2M Solutions blog. Follow him on Twitter @DholakiyaPratik.

Are You Making The Right Decisions for Your Agency? Free Guide Download

Learn how an all-in-one agency management tool takes away the guesswork and helps you make better decisions for a thriving team, happy clients, profitable agency growth.