Project Management for Creative Perfectionists

Are you a planning fanatic or do you prefer to just dive in?

Since this post is based on a tweak to project management and how to use it to sidestep one of the most irritating design problems you can come across (in my opinion) it’s probably going to appeal more to the fanatics among you. If you do just dive in, it’s still worth reading – there’s something for everyone to take away.

For the duration of this post we’re going to define ‘projects’ as on-going, unique tasks that require you to be creative, and have a deadline of some description. This isn’t the only sort of project the concept applies to; it’s just the one I have experience with. Feel free to adapt, prod, poke, and squeeze it into your own situation as we go through.

Introducing today’s example

Our example refers to an Infomercial I have to create this semester in order to pass two (or more) of my classes. Up until now I’ve been horribly over-ambitious with every project I’ve undertaken, and this one is no exception. To pass it must have film footage, interactive elements, and be based on selling an existing product to a target audience.

The Famous Triangle

Step into any Project Management class and one of the first things you’ll be introduced to is the ‘Project Triangle’. While there have been some murmers of it becoming outdated, a lot of working project managers agree that it’s still a good way of viewing work and priorities.

Like all triangles it has three corners; Time, Budget, and Quality. The idea is that you can choose two of those corners to be fixed, and the last is where you’ll make sacrifices should they become necessary. For example, if you have to complete your project by a certain date then it’d be your main priority, and you could choose whether to sacrifice Quality and keep within budget, or sacrifice the Budget and keep within quality.

In another example you may choose to keep the Quality at all costs; then you can decide whether the budget or time is more important to the overall success of the project.

Whenever you keep the two corners you chose at the start of the project within bounds, even if the last corner gets blown out of proportion you can still consider the project itself a success. In theory this means that if your priorities are time and budget and the quality turns out to be very poor the project itself was still successful, though it’s possible others outwith the project may not agree.

Time and Quality

Continuing with our example I choose the two corners that most college students would; Time and Quality. Especially since I’m in my final year the Quality is important (that was a no-brainer decision) and with deadlines being more concrete Time had to be the overriding consideration.

However, there’s no wiggle room in the budget (unless I choose to spend out of my own pocket) because for college projects budgets don’t exist. Considering Time is our immutable corner, that leaves Quality as the only area in which I can cut back if necessary. Obviously this is flawed, but we’ll get back to that in a moment.

Let’s talk a little bit about the relationship between Time and Quality. Deadlines often mean that Time can’t move, or the project has failed. Everyone wants to do their best work to get the best grade possible. How many of us have, at some point, designed a project that was far too ambitious given the time available then had to scramble at the last minute to make it fit?

At that point, are we happy with the sacrifices we’ve made to get it done on time? If you’re anything like me, I doubt it. Sure, you’re happy you got it done on time and therefore haven’t failed – but it looked so much better when you imagined it! Oh, and if you’d had just a little more time, say a week, then it would have looked so much better!

Yet, when you have more time, you choose a more ambitious project. Same results, but a little better than before in technical capability (because you’ve learned a few shortcuts).

The problem there is that you always feel you could have done better, and never truly show your best work. Using whatever your piece was in your portfolio actually makes you a little sad, and you just know that no one else is going to see what you’re capable of based on that… right?

Let’s reframe!

Recognising that cutting Quality rarely left anyone feeling good about a project is probably what led to the modification of the triangle to what you see above. Quality has been moved to the centre as an ideal or goal, and Scope has taken its place as the third corner.

In real terms, this means that when you have constraints of Time and Scope, and you really need to cut Scope – you can remove features and maintain the Quality of the rest. For a student, that means you can cut out the ‘awesome’ extra parts and deliver your best on the main core of your product. When it comes time to add it to your portfolio, you don’t have to worry about how much better any particular area could have been with more time, and anyone looking at it can get a better idea of where your skills currently are.

Shifting Quality to an ideal or goal also gives focus to your triangle – the questions move from ‘How do I do x within y amount of time?’ or ‘How can I cut costs so that z will work?’ to something like ‘What’s the best way to get the right level of quality within x time/budget?’.

In short you move it from a passive ‘I’ll just do what I can’ to an active ‘How do I make this better?’ with regards to the level of work you’re producing. Emphasis moves from what you’re doing to how well you do it, and so far I see no downsides there.

What this also means is that the scope of your project is considered properly at the planning stage. If you know you only have a few months to create something, there’s no way it’s going to be the same scope as something you’ll have a few years to create. When you bring it into the discussion you can fine-tune your ideas into something manageable for the time or budget available. And you can do it without pulling all-nighters towards the end. Maybe.

As you go through a project it’s really tempting to add more and more features; small things that won’t take much time to implement but that could look really cool. Again, by bringing Scope into the discussion you have a way of analyzing these small additions and deciding (even if it’s further down the line) whether to drop them.

(For the record, this ranks very high on my ‘I wish I’d known before…’ list)

Getting to the point; How do we use this?

None of those concepts are new, in fact a google search for ‘Project Management’ will have you tripping over them before you can say ‘Search done’. If I’d really wanted, I could have just pointed you to various other websites and articles, wished you luck, and called it a day. Those parts were just the introduction; this next part is the bit that makes the difference.

Knowing about the updated triangle and the addition of Scope is great, but knowing how to apply it in the real world is better. I found resources on how to practically apply it to creative projects a bit thin on the ground when I was buzzing around like a headless wasp looking for answers. Having struggled with this for years (despite being organized with my projects to the point of obsession) I finally hit a realisation last week, the day before deadline (storyboard, not project – still a big deal).

With the infomercial I’m working on I’ve done more market research than in previous years; I got to know my intended audience, the product, the current audience, and method of communication. I looked at other advertising campaigns to see what worked and what didn’t, and I immersed myself in brand style.

Then I happily skipped off to draw up the first plan for the introductory video. Pitch one rolled around a few weeks ago, the first idea didn’t stick. That was ok, because it was horribly technical and anyway the new idea was much better.

The second pitch happened the day before the storyboards were due in (of course by this stage they’d all been drawn out). Attention was drawn to how ambitious all areas of the project were, how little time I had, and that the story itself didn’t quite gel properly.

Honestly? It was depressing. And demoralising. And with the deadline the next day I had a choice to make; try and fix it, or ignore an obvious flaw in the plan and carry on regardless.

The next morning I drew up a plan that I believe is actually possible and works better than the other two combined. The revised storyboard was submitted on time and I didn’t have to draw as many frames either. The only thing that changed was I suddenly started looking at time and taking it into account when designing.

Again, How?

Because I’d worked on projects involving 3D and Filmed footage before I had a pretty good idea of how long each part would take. Before while I was planning I’d plotted it all into a tighter schedule than I would have liked, telling myself that so long as I stuck to the plan I’d get through it.

When I looked at it that night when time was already critical I finally sat down and looked at how I could eliminate or scale back the more time-consuming elements. In this case it was the animation. I also re-worked the story and script, but how that works is the subject for another post.

Switching mindsets from creative designer to project team let me make massive time cuts and brought my enthusiasm back too (added side bonus).

More than enough about what I did though! Let’s break it down so you can use it too.

Step One – Define your timescale

It’s a good idea to work out how much time you have for each stage of your project before you start planning how to use it. Write down all the parts of your project (planning, design, parts of the product you need to create, etc) and your final deadline. Add any other deadlines you have before the final deadline as well; this will help when you have to schedule everything.

Working back from your deadline, write down each section and how long you can afford for it to take and still be finished on time. If it helps to have a rough idea of a project at this stage then work with that too, but at this stage the sections are more important than what you’re going to do with them. Once you’ve worked that out, see if there’s any wiggle room (in my project if I want a more complex video I have to make the game less complex) between sections and make a note of that too.

Step Two – Brainstorm

Sit and scribble for a while. See where you might want to take your project, write it all down, and hold nothing back. This is by far the most fun bit – have fun!

Important Note – Message

The most important piece of advice I can give you here though is to decide what the point of your project is before you go anywhere near the design stage. The point is to deliver the message, not always to create flashy, beautiful pieces of work (unless that is your message of course).

Step Three – Refine your Idea

Once you know what you want to do and how long you have to do it, take your idea and figure out how. This means (for me at least) writing down what tasks you’d have to do for your idea as it is, working out how long those would take, then seeing where you can make changes in the idea to use less time and keep the message.

Since all projects are different, I can’t tell you exactly what to cut and what to focus on. If you know your project and your message well, you shouldn’t have too much trouble with this stage; the point is to know that you have to go through it before you start work.

Parting thoughts

Simply following these steps won’t magically make your project a success, but it should help you free up the time you need to make it shine (rather than spending the duration scrambling to fix all the features you’ve added!). Practice. See if it works for you. Or better yet, if you have a method of your own share it in the comments.

It’s time to step up and make the things we could make ‘if we had more time’ with the time we already have. We can do it; and I get to say ‘I told you so’ when we rule the world.

Further Reading and References

Project Management PDF by Marion E Haynes
Project Management Basic Principles – Project Smart

Scope Creep Management – Project Perfect

Traue – Let’s grow your Business (first image was from here)

Graphing the Triple Constraints of IT Failure – ZDNet (second image)

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