Herding cats. That’s a metaphor that’s tailor-made for project managers, or really, for anyone who’s tried to ever manage a project!
Now, I’ve never even owned a cat, so I’m going to take the internet’s word that herding them is mission impossible.
But I have managed a project or two (editor’s note: she’s being modest) for creative teams — and lived to tell the tale.
Here are some of the things I’ve learned about herding these creative cats.
First, About Those Cats:
The reason that we use the “herding cats” metaphor is because cats usually don’t act like a herd. Felines are independently minded, and so are the creative cats that I’ve worked with.
This independence often translates into breaking new ground — whether it’s a business plan or a product — and that means projects that are exciting, challenging and fun.
But as independent as they each are, they still share some similarities that I’ve learned along the way. If you’re working on a project with a highly creative team, here are some things to know.
1. Cats don’t look 3 steps ahead…
…so you need to. While this might not be surprising to anyone, I state it because there are consequences that might not be top of mind, even to a project manager.
So much focus and energy happens in the creative phase — the glorious period of sketches, plans, outlines and blueprints — that what comes after (usually the building and testing phase) can get short shrift.
I’ve seen creative teams work right up until a public deadline, thinking that the “hard work” is done when their part is done!
Not so, no matter what market or industry you’re in. This is where a transparent project plan — with clearly articulated deadlines — comes in.
Create a project plan that works backward from the final due-date, has identified all the task dependencies, and has internal milestones that are clear. (Gantt charts are an easy way to get this done.)
2. Cats love having a million choices
Oh, the first heady days of a project: white-boards filled with ideas, team members huddling in hallways to brainstorm outside of meetings because they can’t stop thinking about the project. Creative cats are in their element and the possibilities seem endless.
That’s the problem. Those possibilities often ARE endless — and there’s often a reluctance to start narrowing them down. Meetings turn tedious, as options are sifted through over and over again, but nothing gets decided.
Taking options off the table can be difficult for creative cats, especially options that are great in theory but hard to execute on in the real world (these may be different for every industry, but I tell you, this is a universal concept).
As project managers, we address this by having a process and clear criteria for whittling down options — and holding feet to the fire to make it happen.
3. Cats are unpredictable
You don’t have to be a cat owner to know that it’s true for pets and creative cats alike. They can change their mind — or how they feel about you — with zero notice. They have no compunctions about changing mind even late in the game. This is especially a factor when the creative cat is also the business owner — or chief decision-maker.
Remember all those possibilities we left on the cutting room floor in number 2? This is when they rise, zombie-like, and come to attack your project, and play havoc with your deadlines (and sanity).
The move here isn’t to bat down ideas, but to show consequences — to the budget, to the due-date — that a mid-stream mind change can bring. (Have that Gantt chart or project timeline handy?)
You may also consider having a formal signoff when the creative phase is finished that anchors expectations around “this is what we’re making.”
They’re called various names: design brief, build plan or scope of work. When the changes come, you’ll have a baseline to negotiate from. (More on this later!)
4. Cats love having something to play with
If late-project mind-changing is a frequent issue, here’s an idea to actually incorporate it into your overall project plan. Have a prototype phase. Does the word prototype trip you up? Then how about mock-up, rough draft, or quick run-through.
Many big (and small) firms put prototypes in front of potential customers to see how things will play out before investing in the cost of building the real item.
I like to put mockups in front of my creative teams to see how they react. Translating specs-on-paper to something more “real” often triggers changes to the original design.
Making space for this prior to signing off on the design makes for much smoother sailing later.
5. Cats will (sometimes) insist on having it their way
Despite the above, plan changes will occasionally be a part of your life. That’s ok! Just have a plan. Or, more specifically, have a scope change control plan.
When change requests come in, dig out that design phase approval form and walk the team through how the newly requested changes impact the schedule, resources — and budget. Typically two — and sometimes all three — of those areas will be impacted.
This is usually an eye-opening conversation for some cats. It may result in some scaling back — or maybe it’s full steam ahead. But you’ve insulated the rest of the “down-stream” team from absorbing the impact themselves.
Ultimately, cats are pretty great
Working with creative cats can require extra precautions…but it often has tremendous upside, too. The energy, the creativity, and the willingness to make bold and unpredictable choices all help keep your work feeling fresh and fun. (Personally, I think working with creative teams is the cat’s pajamas.)
And maybe most rewarding of all, a creative cat will rejoice alongside you when it all comes together beautifully. Celebrating the results of your work together is the best!