Creative project management: soft skills required!

By Véronique Mermaz

Editor’s note: I met Véronique through Twitter and LinkedIn and have since had several face-to-face conversations with her.  As she says in her footnote, she is a native French speaker living in East Anglia, specialising in French marketing support.  I was struck when I met her by the richness of her experience in and insights about working with project teams.  The blog that she kindly agreed to write for me certainly reflects these. (Elisabeth Goodman)

The amount of books, training and programmes about management, performance and teamwork on the Internet should make bosses and managers happy.

Companies are looking for tools to sort out their problems and are ready to pay vast amounts of money for it. Bosses and managers want tools to reduce risks, shorten planning and budget and guarantee delivery.

But what makes people work well together? What does it takes to lead a project where creative people are involved? Is it possible to rely on software and tools?

We talk about project management. What is it that you manage? A project? People?

My background is in advertising agencies and marketing and communication departments.

I have experience of setting up, managing and delivering creative projects for a wide range of brands. For years I worked with other creative professionals. They were colleagues or hired for the job, newly graduated or famous. I managed creative people internally and as a consultant and always with the same question: what to put in place to get the best results from the project team? And what do I need myself?

Creative projects are special projects. Marc Hedlund, former SVP Product Development & Engineering at Etsy says: “People and code are…different. The approaches that work so well for getting new software to run are not directly applicable to getting people to work well together.”

I think creative processes need solid ground and I am happy to share my tips, proved and tested.

1) Get clear objectives from your boss / client

What do they want to achieve with the project? Please the Board? Get more funding? Enhance their reputation? Help their regional offices? Demonstrate their expertise? There is no way you can lead a team without a clear objective from your boss or your client. Filter as much as possible any confusing information and share with your project team what’s useful, helpful and what gives energy. They want to succeed as much as you do.

2) Make your team take the planning at its word

Most planning is updated in its lifetime. So what’s the point? One of my rules is to deliver on time at every step and to meet the deadlines from the start. I think the choice of the planning tool isn’t so important. Some simple and boring Excel sheets work well for me and I’ve met other project managers involved in complex digital projects doing the same. If you build and decide the planning you are in a good position. When some director imposes dates for presentations you may have to stand up and negotiate to make the planning viable for you and the team: you can’t plan creativity.

3) Consider your project team as the best in the world

Yes! Really. It’s rare to have the opportunity to build a team exactly as you wish. It is difficult and when it happens it’s very exciting. In large corporate companies unsolicited people arrive at your desk sometimes and if you think they are not good for the cause you can be in trouble. Put your team (chosen or not) into the job quickly: leaping into action helps everyone to find their place and producing and seeing results gives confidence. Every move forward brings strength.

4) Work on risks as a step in the project

There are risks in every creative project and they are manageable. In the manufacturing industry people are paid to reduce risks, develop processes and tools and build standardised approaches. It’s certainly working in some of the creative industries such as video games but it’s not so relevant for smaller/one-shot projects. Working on risks means understanding exactly who does what in the project team, how much support you can get from the Board or the boss and how much money the client is ready to pay. The resources available and agreed are the limits of the project.

5) Be prepared for conflicts

The truth is: you work with people. The longer the project, the more likely it is you will have to deal with frictions and tensions. Conflicts are a pain in the neck because they slow everything down, bring doubts and damage the team spirit. But they are an opportunity to discover something you missed or to simplify the project. I’ve seen sabotage and negative energies at work in some creative projects. My way? I move on, push and support the smart people: usually their positive attitude pulls the team to the top and things get better.

6) Assess the good and the bad

Assessing the quality of the work doesn’t have to be formal and I prefer a continual appraisal: it saves time and energy to keep a team on track and your finger on the pulse. When a creative project takes a year or longer, it’s normal to have doubts or to lose focus and as a project manager I find it more efficient to discuss things as soon as they happen. Any project has lows (get through them) and highs (praise achievements!), errors (amend) and epiphanies (celebrate! celebrate!). It’s vital you talk about it with your project team. Tell them when they are wrong and bring clarity and rationality when things get too sensitive or too personal (it happens).

7) Welcome unexpected outcomes

You can’t master every event in the lifetime of a project: the arrival of a new director or some health problem with a key team member can change your working environment for worse or for better. Or put an end to the project. You may have to accept a new objective or new planning. A good alchemy in the team or the arrival of a new creative person can take the project beyond expectations.

As a creative project manager I had some good surprises: an outsourced creative effort was so efficient that the project got a higher budget from the Board; a project was noticed outside the company and received an award; years later a range of marketing material is the benchmark for a brand.

Finding the balance between delegation and control is tough. Building the creative, intellectual and emotional space for creative people to accomplish their work is not an exact science. As a project manager (in house or as a consultant) you have to think on two levels: the full picture and the detail.
Uncertainty is part of any creative process and you are accountable for quality.

At some point you have to step back, let the creative process develop and at the end put it “into the box” for the Board, the director or the client.

The more you prepare the ground the better the conditions. Understanding creative processes helps.

No software or programme does the job because it takes a mix of skills and experience to create these conditions:

  • Ability to tell the team when they are wrong
  • Ability to bring clarity
  • Ability to be comfortable with experiments
  • Capacity to get the big picture and to pay attention to detail
  • Curiosity for other people’s work


  1. Véronique Mermaz is a native French speaker living in East Anglia, UK.   She specialises in French marketing support. You can find Véronique at LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter @veroniquemermaz.
  2. Elisabeth Goodman is Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, enhancing team effectiveness through process improvement, knowledge and change management. Follow the links to find out about how Elisabeth Goodman and RiverRhee Consulting can help your team to work more effectively for greater productivity and improved team morale.  Read Elisabeth Goodman’s blog for more discussions on topics covered by this blog.

2 thoughts on “Creative project management: soft skills required!”

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