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Project Management For Creative Professionals

Last Saturday I spent a good part of the day at cre8camp, Portland's quarterly incubator for creative professionals. It was soooo refreshing to spend time with "my people". I heard about some interesting businesses, like museum audio program producer, and I described my own work as teaching creative practices to business people. Upon hearing my description, Tad Lukasic, a Portland film producer, suggested that I teach business practices to creatives!

I haven't spent much energy in that direction because I thought I'd rather be the fun guy in a dry business environment than a dry guy in the fun creative environment. But Tad's suggestion stuck with me, and it has prompted me to say something here to creatives about making things happen. If you've already got that covered, please skip the rest of this post (and forgive the insult).

In my experience, there are two things you have to do if you want to make something happen: commit and execute. You might as well call them aim and fire because those are the functions they serve. I think we make commitments in five stages:

1. Commit to an area of interest or concern
2. Commit to an understanding of what's important
3. Commit to a solution approach
4. Commit to features, schedule, and resources
5. Commit to finishing

The key to success is to go through all the stages! Business people tend to start right in at stages 4 and 5 (Project Management). In contrast, creatives tend to get stuck there. So, my fellow creatives, here is a twelve-step program designed just for you.

Poor Man's Guide To Project Management
(a twelve-step program)

Become familiar with the work
1. Identify all of the significant tasks
2. Identify their dependencies and lead times
3. Identify resources required for each
4. Identify any imposed deadlines

Plan the work
5. Plan to have everything ready when it's needed
6. Leave some slack time – you'll need it
7. Leave time for review, evaluation, decision-making
8. Have an owner for every task
9. Make clear and exact commitments
10. Be aware of the critical path
11. Plan for the most likely or impactful contingencies

Execute the work
12. Monitor work and keep track of your findings
13. Keep the ball rolling with every action you take
14. Remember what's important
15. Don't hesitate to step back and review the situation

Learn from your experience
16. When finished, reflect – learn something you can use next time

Did you notice that the twelve-step program has sixteen steps? Good! That's your initiation into the world of Project Management – there are always things you remember only after you've already made a commitment. Not to worry, though – we're creative, aren't we?

Getting Things Done

I've spent the last week getting organized as I get ready to bury myself in an intensive writing task. I didn't think I could write well if my mind was still holding all its little reminders and project statuses. So I bought David Allen's book Getting Things Done.

As predicted, it took several days of dedicated work for me to reorganize, during which all my other activities were on hold. Then, for the first few days on the GTD system, I kept testing it to make sure nothing could easily get lost. It took lots of testing before I felt I could rely on it. It seems to be helping me focus, and if that holds up, it will prove really valuable. The overhead is a little daunting, but the potential benefit is definitely worth it. After several days of real use, I've learned some things about myself that I'd like to share with you.

One thing I learned is that there are times when I'd rather play around with my organizing system than do what would be considered "productive" work. This can last for hours. An observer might think I'm wasting time or dallying around, but I know better. This play serves two purposes for me: (1) Other work that I've done needs in-attention for a time, to "settle in", and the diversion provides that opportunity; (2) Manipulating my tasks as recreation makes things apparent in the portfolio as a whole that might have remained hidden were it not for this play time.

Being a former software engineer, I like to play with systems. My recreation might seem weird to you, but musicians and other artists find recreation like this too. Musicians play the same phrases over and over, for the sheer joy of it. And anyway, the game of creativity is not a march towards a goal. It is an accumulation and connection game. You strive to make as many connections as you can, and eventually you reach a critical mass where good things begin to happen.

The other thing I learned is that for me GTD depends on just two things, and the rest is just mechanics. The two things are: discipline and decisiveness. I need to clearly decide what to do about something, and I need to let the chips fall where they may. This doesn't mean I never review anything. It simply means I review things in a calm an orderly fashion instead of sitting bolt upright at 2AM with worry. I can see already that the energy I save in smooth execution and peace of mind more than compensates for that last drop of perfection I might happen upon when I should be sleeping.

In both my professional and performing lives, I've found that this attribute of "economy" is a key characteristic of the creative process. By making clear commitments and trusting them, I permit myself to accept outcomes and move on. It is the movement that makes the creative process work for me. Only by letting go of decisions (by making them) can I get back to being connected with the real world. And that's what it's all about, isn't it?