We have all been there. That feeling of being stuck. Unable to define that key problem, let alone solve it. Transformation projects rarely travel in a straight line, and with digital innovation and ambiguity becoming constants in today’s workplace, traditional approaches only count for so much. To encourage fresh perspectives and ideas that can super‑charge success, creativity is a secret sauce that is too often overlooked. Here, we share eight practical tips for how you can inject creativity into your projects and transform your team environment in the process.
This article first appeared in the ‘Project journal, the official journal of the Association for Project Management’
1. Foster a culture where everyone feels safe.
At the heart of any successful project is a high‑performing team culture. To unleash creativity in your project team, make every effort to create an environment of psychological safety where diversity of thought, open communication and vulnerability are commonplace:
Create an ethos of openness where people feel safe to contribute.
Simple things such as ensuring everyone has their voices and opinions heard without fear of recrimination.
Build cognitive diversity in your teams.
Ensure your project team includes a mix of styles, personalities and backgrounds. This will foster a wider range of perspectives so creativity can thrive.
Everybody, including leaders, should try to role‑model vulnerability.
Don’t be afraid to admit mistakes and limitations. Seek advice from team members. Pivot publicly when you realise your earlier course of action wasn’t the best one. Doing so will lead to a healthy and trusting team environment.
2. Use guided visioning to create a compelling north star
Successful teams (in business, arts, sport and beyond) share a common view of success. Building a real and achievable vision can be a team game, drawing on the many strengths and perspectives a diverse team brings. Your visioning process should draw inspiration from countless places and stimuli. Try some of the following techniques to build a meaningful, and broadly bought into, vision:
Ask your team to write a future newspaper headline.
Then get them to call out the headline to the room and explain the key points of the supporting article, outlining reasons for success.
Embrace roleplay and deliver a public address.
Pretend you are at an industry conference of peers in three years’ time and you have to take to the stage. Take two minutes to deliver your address to the room describing your project success. Seeing (and feeling) is believing!
Co‑create vision boards to paint the end state.
Use cut‑outs, images from magazines, artwork – whatever gets the juices flowing. Develop your vision board as a team. When you are done, hang it for future visibility on a project room wall (physical or virtual).
3. Be clear why you are solving something
As Einstein said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” In project environments, we’re often pre‐disposed to jumping to solutions. However, without investigating the problem fully, we often design around the wrong exam question. Tips to better define the problem include:
Start on the same page
Clearly articulate the challenge in a concise and agreed problem statement. This might not feel particularly creative, but doing so will provide clarity among your team, save time and resource, and set the scene to ensure your future creative efforts are pointed in the right direction.
Get under the skin of the problem
First, use root‐cause analysis to probe the question robustly. Second, ask your ‘five whys’ to tease out the key issues. Third, use a fishbone diagram to unearth the challenges at play.
Be curious and think like a scientist
Start with your hypothesis, test it, then pause, pivot, continue. Too often stakeholders come together to try to prove their previously held ideas with conviction. Instead, create a test‐and‐learn cycle that allows for challenging the thinking (not the people) and builds towards a better outcome.
Too often stakeholders come together to try to prove their previously held ideas with conviction.
Encourage a philosophy of experimentation to explore better ideas and solutions.
4. Use design thinking to develop customer‐centric solutions
All projects have customers and end users. Put yourself in their shoes from the outset and throughout, frequently asking: what would my customer think, feel, want? With its origins in architecture, design thinking is a human‐centric approach to defining and solving problems with empathy. It’s especially relevant in the design of technology solutions and allows for people to develop better solutions and launch plans that meet user needs:
Use personas to get to get to know your customers better
Paint a picture of your customers to better understand their needs and challenges. Have some fun. Make up identities. Bring them to life. What is their name? Who are they? Where are they from? What do they like and dislike? What are they passionate about? What are their priorities? Make them real and test your solutions around their pain points and needs.
Brainstorming. No idea is a bad idea.
Use techniques such as crazy eights, LEGO/Play‐Doh builds, reverse brainstorming – there are lots of ways to generate ideas. Let your team play, with a guiding principle to hear everyone’s voice.
Make room for playtime through prototyping.
Encourage a philosophy of experimentation in your project to explore better ideas and solutions. Build tangible examples of the result where possible and test, validate and iterate. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research on creativity suggests, something the most successful creative people have in common is the ability to throw away poor ideas fast in the pursuit of better ones.
It changes the brain chemistry of how we feel, and therefore how we connect.
5. Jazz up your planning sessions
Transform your workshops from ordinary to extraordinary. At Gate One, we pride ourselves on curating and facilitating Accelerator events with our clients (virtual or face‐to‐face). We spend a lot of time thinking about the participant experience and making events immersive, creative and inspiring. Ideas you can put into practice to dial up the fun factor include:
Get in the zone, and breathe
Begin your session with meditation and breathing exercises. This is a proven way to shift the cobwebs and focus the mind. Another technique is to use ‘walk and talks’ in pairs rather than sitting at a table; research suggests that walking meetings with fresh air can increase creativity by up to 80%.
Use speed‐dating games across workstreams
Get team members up and around the room (you can use virtual networking platforms to do this online) so different workstreams can interact, connect and get a more holistic understanding of the project plans, dependencies and risks. We’ve uncovered surprising interdependencies from running speed‐dating exercises like this at the programme mobilisation phase.
And, of course, have those tunes playing.
Lighten the mood with some background music; curate a playlist and share with attendees afterwards.
6. Use your imagination to envisage the risks you may face
Who has felt the energy drain out of the room when people arrive to attend yet another risk management meeting? Too often, issues occur because people ignore and do not show up to the initial risk discussion! Sound familiar? The following creative practices to risk management can provoke more effective outcomes:
Start with a pre‐mortem.
Immerse yourself in failure and collectively think about all the ways something might go wrong (get dark – think with a catastrophic lens!) and generate a broader list than normal. Programmes too often repeat the same mistakes, and running a pre‐mortem is an ideal way to uncover new/niche risks and address root causes early.
Rose, thorn and bud.
Evaluate ideas, plans and processes by identifying positives (roses), negatives (thorns) and opportunities (buds). This is a great evaluation technique to test an idea or risk and see if you have the right approach to revolve.
Create happy and unhappy plans.
When you’re moving to periods of high risk, get your team to scenario‐plan, including ‘unhappy plans’ where things might go wrong.
7. Be a storyteller
Everyone enjoys stories. They trigger emotions and allow us to imagine. Project communications are too often mundane, being overly focused on data, milestones and KPIs. Audiences are more engaged and likely to act if they are drawn into an emotional narrative that includes vision, impacts on people (internal and external) and personal stories about what this means in reality. Cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner has proven that people are 22 times more likely to remember information or facts if they are told as part of a story.
Train your team in a preferred story‐telling model.
Select a model (e.g. sparklines, hero’s journey, converging ideas, golden circle) and help team members apply this to project communications.
Tell personal anecdotes and analogies.
When speaking about the programme in meetings and presentations, role‐model and include your flavour of storytelling. Celebrate success and tell stories of individual and team accomplishments regularly. Use video content, get people to share their perspectives and describe the who and the why. You are guaranteed to connect better, and key messages will have more resonance.
Every one of us can be creative.
We just need the right environment to flourish – the culture, time and permission
8. Embrace your inner child and play
Our programme environments work better when we embrace humour, fun and a childhood sense of play. Edward De Bono (of ‘the six thinking hats’ fame) is quoted as saying: “Creativity and lateral thinking have exactly the same basis as humour.” When we laugh, we release dopamine (we’re happier), release oxytocin (we’re more trusting) and lower cortisol (less stress). In a professional setting, laughter matters. It changes the brain chemistry of how we feel, and therefore how we connect, problem‐solve and create. Keep a sense of playfulness across your programme team:
Maintain regular team connection events
From all‐in celebrations to simply checking how people are on a Monday morning.
Don’t be afraid to force the fun.
Ask everyone to share a funny story, have team competitions for the funniest childhood photo. Get cheesy!
Create some space.
Nothing kills fun more than a diary filled with back‐to‐back planning and crisis meetings; balance these with space to connect, think, laugh and create.
Think big, start small, start now
As legendary choreographer Twyla Tharp purports: “Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is the result of good work habits.” As we plan and execute our programmes, we know that discipline, planning and risk management are critical to ensuring success. And so too is thinking outside the box. Every one of us can be creative, we just need the right environment to flourish – the culture, the time and the permission. When the conditions are right, creativity can unleash so much potential, freedom and fresh thinking into your programmes and organisation, for years to come.
And it’s fun. If we leave you with one action, it’s to open your calendar now and block out time for creativity. Think big, start small, start now.