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Creativity and Project Management

Ralph L. Kliem

Perhaps the best phrase that describes the need for creativity on projects is the one offered by Daniel Goleman, notable author on emotional intelligence, when he presented the maxim "I have to do it myself, and I can't do it alone."1 A project requires the contribution of individuals which includes their knowledge and creativity. A project, however, also requires that the individuals on the team work together to achieve common goals and objectives.

Creativity on a project requires both operating independently while simultaneously having everyone working together. If a project was simply an amalgamation of independent creative geniuses the likelihood of achieving success is less than working together synergistically. In other words, they exercise creative collaboration that involves individuals applying their creativity both separately and also as a team member to achieve the vision of a project.

Benefits of Creativity

There are many obvious, and not so obvious, benefits of harnessing creativity on projects. These benefits include:

  • Building Emotional Involvement
  • Generating New Ideas
  • Increasing Teaming
  • Leading to Competitive Advantage
  • Leveraging and Increasing Knowledge
  • Opening Minds
  • Stretching the Performance of People

Building Emotional Involvement

Creativity encourages emotional involvement because of the challenge it offers to people. Challenging the status quo is not for the faint hearted because the areas they enter were once deemed taboo. Mental adrenalin begins to flow as the prospect of making a significant change—whether in theory or reality—causes one to stay emotionally engaged even in the midst of potential overwhelming failure. It is, in essence, the thrill of the hunt that keeps people engaged when exercising creativity. Their engagement becomes so emotionally involved that they lose any sense of time, awareness, or physical debilitation.

Generating New Ideas

Creativity, by its very nature, challenges the status quo. It questions the existing order of doing business whether in regards to a process or product or service. It requires asking questions like: Why? and How? Essentially, it requires being destructive before generating something new, whether a product, process, service, or system. Roger von Oech concurs, noting: "Creative thinking is not only constructive, it is also destructive."2

History is replete, of course, with examples where creativity was the instrument for generating new ideas. Everything from political theory to technological advancement creativity has a played a key role, whether coming from an individual or a group. It is quite obvious that, without creativity, advancements in so many fields would not occur.

Increasing Teaming

Creativity, when involving more than one person, e.g., a team, frequently results in people working together in trying to acquire that "Aha!" feeling that happens when something creative arises, e.g., having insight to a solution in a problematical impasse. A team, especially after operating as just a collection of individuals finds its members jamming or jelling around the idea. All attention focuses on furthering the development of the idea and, just as importantly, encouraging everyone to use their creativity, to make it a reality. A breakthrough idea often builds commitment which energizes everyone with a feeling that they are part of something greater than themselves.

Leading to Competitive Advantage

Even though James Higgin's list of primary challenges were formulated in the 1990's, the circumstances that affect a firm's ability to adapt ring as true today as they did back then. Higgins, in Innovate or Evaporate3, identifies ten challenges that firms face which require creative, adaptive responses. These are:

  • Accelerating rates of change
  • Globalization of business competition
  • Increasing complexity of the environment
  • Increasing demands of constituents
  • Increasing levels of competition
  • More diverse workforce
  • Rapid technological change
  • Resource shortage
  • Transition from industrial to knowledge-based society
  • Unstable market and economic conditions

If companies harvest and harness the creativity of individuals and groups alike, they can compete more effectively and efficiently in such environments. Unfortunately, the pressure to maintain the existing order of a firm, which is essential, can constrain the creativity of individuals and teams simply to satisfy a firm's need for obedience. Extreme compliance can result in people, to use an overwrought phrase, thinking outside the box. Individuals and teams alike then constrain their creativity because what often gets rewarded in an organization is compliance, not creativity even if it leads to innovation. The result is an organization that fails to adapt and respond to a dynamic environment. Creative actions provide the means for a project and organization to adapt to such an environment.

Leveraging and Increasing Knowledge

Accumulation of knowledge for knowledge's sake is fine, but its real advantage comes when it is mixed with creativity. Creativity serves as the catalyst that puts knowledge into action to change reality. When both are combined, either on an individual or team level, the results can become synergistic. While limited knowledge can sometimes lead to more creative outcomes the chances increase that, the more knowledge about a domain or subject, the greater the opportunity for innovative thought. Little knowledge often leads to subscribing to beliefs and assumptions that are treated as facts, thereby constraining one's ability to think creatively. Further combination of teams and cumulative knowledge and creativity can have an explosive effect. Business and science are replete with examples of when greater knowledge is coupled with creativity. Knowledge and creativity both share a common characteristic. They are both cumulative. Knowledge begets more knowledge; creativity begets greater creativity.

Opening Minds

Creativity requires and causes minds to open up to possibilities and realities that have never before existed. Due to its destructiveness, creativity increases knowledge and awareness because it breaks down the mental paradigms, or models, that many people hold dear for confronting reality. Sometimes creativity opens minds dramatically by attacking fundamental premises held sacrosanct by so many; at other times, it advances existing paradigms by reinforcing the basic tenets. Sometimes, however, it simply results in incremental improvements that gradually lead to change but, cumulatively over time, leads to dramatic change. Individuals and teams often find their awareness so strong that what they viewed as "sacred" seems no longer relevant and giving them no other choice but to accept change.

Stretching the Performance of People

Contrary to popular opinion, creativity often involves hard work. It requires effort to understand the status quo and then challenge it, not an easy task. Issues of unlearning and relearning, changing and challenging assumptions, taking a new perspective, re-arranging what others perceive as reality, just to list a few shifts, requires considerable mental and even physical work. Creativity causes not just the status quo to become stressed and potentially broken but can also do the same for the person doing the creating. Legendary stories abound of individuals and teams working late into the night or innumerable days, to the point of exhaustion and emotional breakdown, are not uncommon.


Creativity is a key ingredient to the success of almost all projects simply because projects rarely go as smoothly, as planned. Obstacles, issues, risks, and show stoppers are just some of the debris that falls in the path of completing a project. This debris requires that people be creative in dealing with it so that the product or service being built and delivered meets the needs of the customer. This creativity can happen both on individual and group levels; ideally, both levels should be integrated in a way that melds the creativity of the individual with that of the group to increase the likelihood of a successful completion of a project.


1. Daniel Goleman; Paul Kaufman; and Michael Ray, The Creative Spirit (New York: Dutton: 1992), p. 122

2. Roger von Oech, A Whack on the Side of the Head (New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1990), p. 57.

3. James M. Higgins, Innovate or Evaporate, (Winter Park, FL: The New Management Publishing Company, 1995), p. 8.

Read more IT Performance Improvement

This article is an excerpt from:

Creative, Efficient, and Effective Project Management supplies an in-depth discussion of creativity and its relationship to project management. Specifically, it explains how the tools and techniques of creativity can be used to enhance the five processes executed during a project: defining, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and closing.

Establishing the groundwork for encouraging and sustaining creativity in your projects, the book details the benefits of integrating creativity in projects. It discusses common, and not so common, tools and techniques for developing project management deliverables and identifies the challenges that can arise when using creativity in a project. It also details ten little-known facts that can help you overcome the obstacles that often prevent organizations from tapping into the power of creativity in their projects.

About the Author

Ralph L. Kliem, PMP, has more than 25 years of experience with Fortune 500 firms in the financial and aerospace industries. His wide, varied experience in project and program management includes managing compliance, business continuity, and information technology projects and programs.

In addition to being the author of more than 15 books, which have been translated in several languages, he has published more than 200 articles in leading business and information systems publications.

Mr. Kliem is an adjunct faculty member of City University in Seattle and a former member of the Seattle pacific University faculty; an instructor with Bellevue College and Cascadia Community College; and a frequent presenter to the Puget Sound chapter of the Project Management Institute and other professional organizations. He also teaches Project Management Professional (PMP) certification and other project management seminars and workshops inside and outside the United States.