Why project management is a skill that every creative needs to succeed

When you tell a group of designers that you feel like you have ADHD, chances are they will unanimously empathize and tell you that they probably have it too. Ok — this might be ever so slightly exaggerated, but by definition, designers are specialists in bringing diverse perspectives into creating something new. Great designers not only understand business, technology, and most importantly people; they also constantly challenge their own understanding by asking great questions. If you ask the designer you bump into at those weird-places-with-strange-experiences that designers are generally drawn to, chances are they’d find some truth in the phrase

I didn’t choose the design life. The design life chose me.

So hopefully by this point I’ve gotten my point across that great designers are seekers: they follow their nose in directions that increase the chances of stumbling upon their next greatest epiphany. The upside of all this is that designers are finely tuned to their environment and shower their next project with inspirations from all walks of life. Ironically, these qualities, if not properly channeled, can cause chronic-multi-tasking-syndrome at its finest. I, for one, have been living with this handicap for years and have always rationalized it with all the positive things I bring into projects.

Contrasting all the times I struggled against all my instances of success, my pattern of productivity is clear. Every project where I accomplish more than I anticipate share these attributes:

  • Duration: short
  • Goal: simple and clear
  • Feedback: frequent and regular

As you’d expect, these attributes are absent in projects where I keep myself extremely busy but in the end get overwhelmed, lose momentum, and feel frustrated. Why? I believe the culprit is

DEATH BY A THOUSAND OPPORTUNITIES

A very old and very wise woman once warned me and my co-founders during our entrepreneurship journey of this seemingly inconsequential hazard: in hatching an idea into a company, it is expected that you will discover many important problems along the way that your company can solve. But as a small team trying to do big things, your time is your most precious resource and the more problems you try to take on, the less resource you have to solve one problem really well. Also, the more problems you try to solve, the more generic you become.

As designers, it is in our nature to push others and ourselves to think broader. So how do you reconcile our aspirations with implementing our aspirations? Even getting to having a desire to answer this question is one of the most important takeaways from my first year spent working in design. The answer to some of you might be obvious and underwhelming — project management. But for someone like me who has rationalized away the need to do with books like StrengthsFinder that advocate the message that we are best off working on our strengths than on our weaknesses, realizing the important of project management is a blessing.

Having an instinct for project management is especially useful for anything truly new and creative without a proven process. The statement itself is kind of an oxymoron because process opposes originality, and vice versa. “process” brings to mind a linear step-by-step assembly line, which is ironic because the manufacturing metaphor pervades our thinking about most kinds of work and is the context that most of us have come to learn about the wonders of process-driven blah. While we can observe a general pattern of where good ideas come from, fitting the pattern into a “process” metaphor is pigeon-holing, for lack of a better word, a craft.

But somehow, the job still needs to get done. Rather than the word “process,” words like “compartmentalize” and “chunk” may serve us well. Through observing some great design managers on my team in action, who are able to stick with a fuzzy, long term project with the same level of enthusiasm, the skill is analogous to what it takes to gently unwrapping a swab of cotton candy. You reel one small piece after another into your mouth at a constant pace while revolving the sphere so that every bite sets you up for the next. Avoid biting all over the cotton candy without eating it too. When properly done, it should appear elegant and graceful. Mismanagement is clear when you stick face into inconvenient places and make a mess. If you find the metaphor too fluffy, the secret is simply

bite off what you can chew. And if you can’t chew it, then bite it into smaller chunks and repeat.
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