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Project Planning for Creative People

Project planning for creative people needs to be completely different to traditional planning.
Most existing project management and planning tools have been created by technical minds driven by logical, structured though processes and where numbers and results are the keys to success. When the same approach is applied to the creative world full of colours, images and ideas there is an immediate clash of orthodoxies.
The creative mind tends to work in alternative ways, often non-linear, and although the desired outcome is essentially the same, project management in the creative arena needs to adapt to accommodate the needs of the creative user.

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Visual project plans work well for creative people – this plan was created with The MAPP online planning tool

There is often a natural conflict between those that run agencies and those that work in the studio, with the former focused on delivering profit and the latter on delivering design excellence – often at whatever the cost.
So in order to deliver successful project outcomes in these creative environments some changes to traditional project planning techniques are needed. It will usually require more conversation, potentially a template plan that is clear from the outset and keeps everyone on track, but most importantly a project management system that doesn’t look like it’s going to launch the next Space Shuttle. Using an easy project management tool that is a visual pleasure to use will go a long way to consistent engagement.
Some things remain the same such as defining the goals, business and creative, of the project at the outset. Using a proven template can then help to keep the scope within a manageable area of flexibility, while still allowing for some risk-managed deviation from the central plan.
Some things will be different however, especially in the world of collaboration which is an accepted, even required norm for most creative projects so the approach can never appear to be too ‘top-down’ or imposed. Even though a template may form the basis of the project there must be room for opinion, emotion and deviation.
The project manager themselves may have to take on an extended role, ensuring that the team of varying talents and skills can work together to the focused goal without forcing the creative soul to spend hours filling in forms or developing budget numbers.
In all cases empathy will be essential for project planning with a range of characters across an agency. It also requires less rigidity than you’d see in the logical world. With these organic solutions, it’s very hard to predict the problems that will come up.
Ultimately, project planning for creative people demands the existence of a few key elements: a simple template system, an open attitude and an empathetic focus on the goal. With these in hand, they will stand the project manager in good stead and minimise the chances of project failure.

A project planning tool for creative people

You don’t need a sophisticated tool to get started with planning with a group of creative people. A large whiteboard, some sticky notes, are a perfectly good starting point.
However, as the size of a team grows, or you have people working together from different locations, it can be helpful to have an online, collaborative planning tool. That way you can easily save your work, share it with colleagues, and add to your plan over time as your plans evolve, without creating a huge mess of sticky notes each time.
We’ve created a tool to do just that. It’s called TheMAPP and it’s designed to make planning simple, fast and effective. It doesn’t assume any background knowledge in project management so you (or Sue from marketing) can create your first project plan in minutes. Sign up for a free trial here and tell me what you think:
Create an online plan for creative people



Essential Business Skills Number 1 – Engagement

There are piles of academic research that demonstrate that higher levels of employee engagement will markedly improve business performance. Does that help the manager on the ground who is looking to generate enthusiasm, bolster motivation and encourage the team to drive towards the business goals? Well, not unless that academic rigour can turn itself into practical activities that can be easily implemented, and from which benefits can be drawn.
managementWe start from the premise that people want to come to work, understand their jobs, and know how their work contributes to the success of the organisation. From that starting point we set ourselves the goal of creating a set of activities that together combine to form a simple plan of action which in turn allows us to see whether we are getting things done or not. The list is probably not definitive but seems to encompass all that we know and have learned from books and real life.

Setting Direction

greenarrowandtargetIssue – In general people want to know what is expected of them and how their performance will be measured against those expectations. Hiding these expectations or making them hard to access or understand will simply drive disengagement. Making them clear, published and simple will promote enthusiasm for the goal and may encourage people to go beyond.
Solution – So perhaps it means getting everyone involved in the setting of the goals in the first place or at least allowing them to have a say. Ensure everyone in the whole team understands the goals and what their specific part in achieving them is. Hold an event around the goal setting making certain that everyone is clear of what the imperatives are and of the rewards that are available on success.

Communicating Effectively

angrymenIssue – So many plans fail not because initial communication is bad but more because communication deteriorates over the duration of the plan. Regular communication is essential to maintaining engagement by creating a common understanding of exactly where the plan has got to and what is left to do. It promotes the sense of feeling part of a wider entity that is focused on delivering a specific and successful outcome. And this communication can’t be just broadcast it needs to be interactive allowing the team to respond and suggest changes that are taken seriously through dialogue.
Solution – One way of promoting engagement is to rotate the responsibility for creating the communication. By getting each individual to be responsible at one point for the update will promote wider understanding of the issues that others face and will ensure that they know what else is going on around them. Perhaps only report on those things that need discussion or attention – both good and bad.

Promoting Teamwork

promotingteamworkIssue – Whether the team members already know each other or whether are completely new, the challenge may be to give each of them the opportunity to understand each other at a deeper level, allowing each to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of the others. Once each member feels that they can depend on others for support and guidance, blame tends to fall away and the focus moves to what can make the team as a whole succeed rather than just ‘me’ as the individual.
Solution – If going offsite to climb trees and sail boats works then do it. If your budget or the team’s profile means that these approaches are not viable then there are other ways that can be as simple as a ‘brown-bag’ lunch outside on the grass (if you have any) or an afternoon talk by an external expert that is specific to your plan and allows everyone to collaborate using the expertise of another person.

Celebrating Progress

poppingcorkIssue – Most projects tend to move consistently forward, forgetting to look back every now and then to see what has been achieved and to celebrate progress. The psychology of engagement in this context is simple – build something and then stand on top of it to look at what you have done and to give yourself a better view of what’s next. If the team doesn’t take the time to review what been accomplished they may never realise that they have been successful. Rewarding people, in whatever way, for their efforts can help to build engagement.
Solution – Many will look for financial reward but others may just seek the attention that success brings. Part of the process is to make sure that there is a range of rewards available so that each person can access the one that means most to them. A ‘one size fits all’ policy may demotivate and may make team members feel less engaged with the overall plan. In all cases, making it clear that their efforts have been recognised is essential.

Keeping it Going

ballsIssue – Many people expect enthusiasm to be high at the start of any project but to fall off as the business of implementation gets underway. Indeed, it is very easy to let the momentum die away as the project gets into its stride and this needs to be avoided to maintain team engagement. There is a risk that too much effort is made to engage the team as the activity progresses. What is clear is that enthusiasm overkill is almost as bad as doing nothing at all so a balance needs to be struck where appreciation is obvious but not overplayed.
Solution – Maintaining interest and engagement can be as simple as reminding everyone of what the project goals are and showing how far the team has gone towards reaching them. This can be extended into publishing progress to another interested or connected audience to demonstrate success on a wider scale. It can also be delivered by using some social media channels to publish blogs or updates to the project to the world at large, thereby creating an ongoing story.
Ultimately we feel that generating engagement by everyone involved in the project, whatever it is, is an essential skill for managers to develop. It goes beyond just salary, allowing people to access both psychological and social fulfillment as well as generating motivation aligned with the overall business strategy driving to the heart of what really matters at work.
If you are looking for a way to engage you team in a project then maybe we can help. MAPP is a simple, fast and effective way to get your team on board with a plan and keep them engaged until its complete. Take a look at


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Do Online Systems Supress Creativity?

At The MAPP we have been doing some research on how people interact with online systems and what makes for good and bad online environments [this post was originally posted on 06 September 2013] .

Our focus is naturally on planning systems that foster online collaboration, but much of the output relates to any online system that is used to support business activity.

What we found in the first paper was very interesting:

  1. People prefer to use physical representations of data to using form-based systems – cards, blocks and shapes are better than cells.
  2. People’s minds naturally want to associate one piece of data with others not by structured sequence but by lateral choice. The use of Hypertext linking is ubiquitous proof of this preference.
  3. People realise that change in any plan is constant and systems that allow simple changes to be made quickly get more engagement and are ultimately preferred.

So in association with Rasmus Rosenqvist Petersen PhD we have produced a white paper that details the research and theory behind these interactions which you can download here.

Rasmus has been developing this theme over three white papers so please let us know what you think.

Access all of the white papers so far here.



The 10 Greatest Project Plans The World Has Ever Seen – Number 8

This post is part of our series on the greatest project plans the world has ever seen and was originally posted on 13 August 2013.

The idea behind this series of blog posts is to review some of the greatest human achievements and how they were made real by people who took project plans really seriously and had a true “getting things done” attitude. The rankings are the results of a small survey and of course I would love to hear your views and suggestions for candidates that I have missed or discounted. So let’s continue with Number 8…

The number 8 slot is occupied by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland.


The LHC had a difficult birth as although plans for a large proton collider at CERN had been discussed since 1977, the approval of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) in the United States in 1987 put the whole project into doubt. The SSC was almost three times more powerful than what was originally planned at CERN but the resilience and conviction of one man, Carlo Rubbia the Director-General of CERN, who kept the project alive.
In December 1993, a plan was presented to the CERN Council to build the machine over a ten-year period by reducing almost to zero CERN’s other experimental programmes. The plan was well received but the two largest contributors, Germany and the United Kingdom, were unhappy with the increased funding needed and as a result gained more control over the project. In June 1994, a second proposal was made and although 17 member states voted to approve the project again was blocked by Germany and the UK, who demanded that the host states France and Switzerland contributed more which they eventually did. The project was approved for two-stage construction, to be reviewed in 1997 by which time India, Russia, Canada and the US had joined in and in 1998, four years after its start-up, the first test string of the LHC came to the end of its operation.


The goal for the project was grand to say the least. Although the stated objectives were to allow physicists to test the predictions of different theories and unsolved questions of particle physics and high-energy physics, the gold at the end of the rainbow was the potential to prove or discount the existence of the theorised Higgs boson particle – often referred to as the ‘God’ particle. The existence of the Higgs boson could potentially plug a gap in the “standard model” of particle physics that is a system that attempts to describe the forces, components, and reactions of the basic particles that make up matter. The only particle predicted by the model which had not been experimentally verified was the Higgs boson so the goal, while huge, was pretty clear.

As a £2.6bn engineering project, the LHC was immense. Nominally called the world’s largest machine, it has a circumference of 27km, lies in a tunnel up to 175 metres deep and contains a total of 9300 magnets inside. Clearly the world’s largest particle accelerator it is also effectively the world’s largest fridge as all the magnets must be pre cooled to -193.2°C (80 K) using 10 080 tonnes of liquid nitrogen, before they are filled with nearly 60 tonnes of liquid helium to bring them down to -271.3°C (1.9 K).
As a collaborative project the LHC broke new ground involving over 10,000 scientists and engineers from over 100 countries, as well as hundreds of universities and laboratories. The computing challenges were also new – almost 100,000 computers working together to manage data volumes that reached over 3 petabytes per year.

cern3Keys to Success

Setting a clear and romantic vision for the project was seen to be one of the keys to the success of the LHC – answering questions that had been asked by physicists for generations created a sense of awe and excitement around the goal, allowing many who would have normally been in conflict to work together and put aside their differences. Collaboration on a massive scale on a simple plan was part of this, not just scientists but politicians and business leaders coming together for a common purpose.
Persistence was critical to the process as so many of the elements of the project plan had never been attempted before and were prone to failure. A small piece of baguette dropped by a passing bird was identified as being responsible for the overheating of the supercooled magnets in 2009. Even when the LHC went live in September 2008, only 9 days later an electrical fault led to damage to 50 magnets and the team then spent by 14 months putting them right before resuming experiments.


Although all the media coverage focused on the Higgs boson story, by August 2013, the LHC had discovered several previously unobserved particles including the bottomonium state, the e Bottom xi and the Lambda baryons as well as ultimately a new fundamental particle – a massive 125 GeV boson which subsequent results confirmed to be the long-sought Higgs boson. And just for a bit of fun there’s a CERN video rap which explains it all!

Top 10 List

Number 10 – The Channel Tunnel

Number 9 – First Transcontinental Railroad across the USA


The 10 Greatest Project Plans The World Has Ever Seen – Number 9

This post is part of our series on the greatest project plans the world has ever seen.

The idea behind this series of blog posts is to review some of the greatest human achievements and how they were made real by people who took project plans really seriously and had a true “getting things done” attitude. The rankings are the results of a small survey and of course I would love to hear your views and suggestions for candidates that I have missed or discounted. So let’s continue with Number 9…

The number 9 slot is occupied by the First Transcontinental Railroad across the USA

The development of a complete trans-American railroad was the result of a long-term movement that started in 1832 when Dr. Hartwell Carver, an American doctor and businessman, published an article in the New York Courier & Enquirer advocating the “Building of a transcontinental railroad from Lake Michigan to Oregon”. In 1847 he went to the US Congress to ask for a charter to build it and although initially rejected, in 1856 the Select Committee on the Pacific Railroad and Telegraph of the US House of Representatives recommended its adoption primarily in order to maintain control over its position in the Pacific and to avoid the need to use seaborne routes through waters controlled by other nations.

The ultimate goal of the project was to complete a 1,907 mile (3,069 km) contiguous railway that connected the Pacific coast at San Francisco Bay with the then-existing Eastern U.S. rail network at Council Bluffs, Iowa on the Missouri River. The line was opened on May 10, 1869, with the driving in of what was called the “Last Spike” with a silver hammer at Promontory Summit in Box Elder County, Utah which itself was at an elevation of 4,902 feet (1,494 m) above sea level. The route ultimately revolutionised the settlement and economy of Western parts of the US by drawing these areas more firmly into the “Union” and making the transportation of goods much faster, flexible and more cost effective than before.

To seed a collaborative solution, two companies, the Union Pacific Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad, were chosen with Central Pacific starting in Sacramento and building east across the Sierra Nevada, and Union Pacific building westward from the Missouri River.
There was a simple business plan. The project was funded by the issuance of 30-year U.S. government bonds to private investors. The bonds were planned to be paid back (and were in full) by the sale of government granted land and future passenger and freight income. The bonds had different values per mile dependent on the terrain being covered to ensure that the challenges of the land were overcome. They were set at $16,000/mile for level track, $32,000/mile for track laid in foothills and $48,000/mile for track laid in mountains.
Getting materials to the Pacific end of the railway proved tricky. All supplies had to be effectively exported 18,000 miles from the East coast to Sacramento either via ship round Cape Horn (100-200 days) or across the nascent parts of the Panama Canal (40 days). The material then had to travel 130 miles (210 km) up the Sacramento River to the terminus.
Provisions in the Acts of Congress drawn up to deliver the project were made for telegraph companies to enable them to combine their existing lines with the Railroad’s telegraph lines as they were built. These lines provided rapid communication for ordering more supplies or particular types of men with specific skills and all for scheduling the trains which had to go both ways on a single track.
Of course a railway needed other infrastructure and so a 400 feet (120 m) right-of-way grant on either side of the track was granted to build stations, sidings, yards, maintenance buildings and while some of this land had the potential for mineral mining or was farm or forest land the majority of it was valueless desert.

Keys to Success
Apart from the immense government funding needed to convert such a project the main key to success seemed to have been the people. Such a project needed lots of engineers and surveyors and these were on hand mainly as Union and Confederate Army veterans who had built, protected and maintained the rail network in the East during the Civil War and as result already knew most of what had to be done and how to direct workers to get it done. Indeed most of the semi-skilled workers on the Union Pacific railway were recruited from the ranks of ex-soldiers on both sides of the war alongside emigrant Irish workers who were escaping poverty and famine in Ireland.
The Central Pacific employed many emigrant Chinese manual labourers for construction who were themselves escaping the poverty and terrors of the Taiping Revolution in the Kwangtung province in China.

Travel on the new railroad which cost $50m began five days after its completion. Before it was built it cost nearly $1,000 dollars to travel across the country but after the railroad was completed the price dropped to $150 dollars. And despite the effort put in by all the workers there were two separate fares, one for ‘immigrants’ and one for first class.

Top 10 List
Number 10 – The Channel Tunnel