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All I really need to know about creative project management, I learned in kindergarten

October 10, 2017

When we talk about creative project management we don’t often think of schools, but these institutions are perfect examples of where practical administration and direction must go hand-in-hand with creativity in order to attain a very defined goal – preparing children for the future.

The creative process is chaotic, and if you want to define chaos, all you have to do is put your head through the door of a primary school classroom. In that high-pressure, fluid environment, creative professionals (teachers) must achieve the goal of making sure every single student in their class has achieved vital milestones in whichever curricula, in order to proceed to the next year.

By using these schools as an example, we can learn a lot about creative project management.

Deadlines and playtime for creative adults

John Cleese is a creative genius. Should you ever be involved in a tedious task like cleaning the bathroom or polishing the silver, any one of his speeches, lectures or interviews available on YouTube makes for a great auditory distraction.

In talks, he eludes to the ‘open’ and ‘closed’ frames of mind – when they are in an open frame of mind, creative professionals are walking through leafy parks, doodling on notepaper, or sitting around the break table 30 minutes after their lunch break is over. To a passing manager this behaviour looks highly unproductive, but as Mr. Cleese points out that wasted time is necessary for getting good ideas. The ‘closed’ frame of mind isn’t good for coming with new ideas, but it is good for getting things done.

For creatives, ‘ASAP’ is a terrible, useless deadline. A reasonable deadline for a decision needs to be established some exact point in the future, and that decision should be made when the deadline comes, and not before it. A good school principal or administrator will give teachers sufficient time to plan and devise new lesson plans, and will request copies at a set date and not before. Creative businesses need to take the same approach.

Creativity requires playtime, a defined time and space where play happens, free of annoying phone-calls and hurrying emails.

Shield your creatives from clients

Businesses need customers, true, but it’s undeniable that sometimes the client-company relationship is a difficult one indeed. Any teacher or school administrator will tell you that parents are the worst customers ever – if they aren’t complaining about harsh assignment marking, they are blaming schools for their children’s bad behaviour at home, or demanding that teachers raise their children for them. A bad administrator will put teachers in that ruthless firing line, while when appropriate, a good administrator will shield them from it.

One job of a creative project manager is to take client thoughts and feedback, separate out the unrealistic and realistic requests, reply to the client about the former, and pass the latter onto creatives in the form of concrete requests and assignments. As discussed above, creatives need to develop solutions through play, and unconstructive feedback will harm that vital process. Project managers need to serve a vital liaising role between creatives and customers.

Of course, this liaison requires communication between project managers and creative workers – not a constant conversation that can get in the way of thought processes, but enough engagement to keep the customers satisfied as Paul Simon wrote. You can learn a lot about these interactions by watching AMC’s ‘Mad Men’, if you are one of the few who haven’t seen the series yet.

Control your emotions


Sticking to the education theme, I know a school administrator who has worked at international schools on four continents, who is so loved by his staff that when he moves to a new school, previous employees will follow him.

What made him so popular was his emotional stability – he had the ability to take on or shrug off any criticisms his school would receive from parents, pass on what was needed to his staff (through the filtering method I discussed above), and otherwise address any difficult complaints himself. He also gave himself plenty of playtime – in particular, knocking fossils out of the Dorset coast cliffs. He had an uncanny ability to leave any work-related concerns at his desk, and to recreate with a clear conscious.

He was also immensely patient with his staff, offering his help in terms of professional or personal concerns (when requested). He recognized the strengths and weaknesses of his staff, while also being aware of his own. He was a sometimes a tough leader, having no hesitancy in firing destructive staff or expelling students as required, but was also respected for his understanding and reflexivity.

This section doesn’t need much elaboration – creative employees are going to behave and think differently from the average cubicle worker bee, and they both strong team dynamics and a good, working and equal-footed relationship with their managers. This means that managers need to be more responsive and empathetic, and well aware of their own actions and emotions.

Managing creative thinkers

Teaching is one of the fullest full-time jobs ever. There isn’t much time left over after teaching lessons, planning lessons, marking and sleeping. Other creative professionals may not have to work themselves to that extreme level, but if they are good at their jobs they will be equally focused and energetic.

Creative project managers need to take on administrative roles in their entirety, so creative teams don’t have to.


Simplified technology and applications such as Trello and Slack can help maintain essential communication and coordination with minimal distraction. Managers can also use simple client-engagement software to engage and work with customers. Specialised sharing tools like Wrike are particularly useful for staff exchanging visual documentation.

Remember that in order to do their job, creative people need to play. It is your job as the project manager to give them that time, to make sure that deadlines are met as necessary, and that the customer’s needs are fulfilled. When all that’s done, hopefully, you too can enjoy some productive time off.

What do you think? Do you agree with these ideas? Please post your comments below and let’s discuss.