4 Simple Ways to Keep Creative Projects On-Track

4 simple ways to keep creative projects on-track

Creative teams thrive on flexibility, having the freedom to explore, experiment and push boundaries. But can too much of a good thing can be, well, too much?

What’s holding you back? It might be how you organize creative projects.

Creative teams thrive on flexibility, turning out some of their best work when given the freedom to explore, experiment and push boundaries. But, are there times when too much of a good thing can be, well, too much?

In many circumstances, a laissez faire, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach can actually become an obstacle to creativity, and certainly to productivity. Disorganization and lack of structure can be paralyzing, causing even the best teams to become smothered by relentless chaos. A lack of clear direction, continuous rework, too many meetings and not enough uninterrupted creative time to get work done all curtail creativity, prohibit productivity and sap team members’ enthusiasm and energy for the work.

In fact, more than one-third of workers cite lack of “standard” processes for workflow and poor priorities management as two primary obstacles that get in the way of work. Worse yet, most employees spend less than half of their workday actually doing work. The rest is wasted on email, busywork and meetings.

On the other hand, teams that are well-organized, have a clear focus and eliminate clutter and distractions are much more creative, effective and productive, and even have time for those urgent, fire-drill projects that will inevitably pop up. While some creatives balk at the notion of structure and organization, the reality is that every team needs some amount of structure in order to maintain their sanity and to be truly effective.

The secret to maintaining a healthy balance is to add the ideal amount of process and systems to keep everyone organized, without allowing the structure itself to get in the way. You can have your cake and eat it, too. Here’s are four easy ways to be more creative and productive:

1. Enforce the use of creative briefs.

You’ve no doubt heard the phrase, “measure twice, cut once.” Creative briefs enable this mistake-free environment by setting the strategy, tone and key messages for any project up front; eliminating confusion, rework and conflicts over expectations and goals that often erupt mid-stream. You probably already know that you should be using creative briefs, but surprisingly only 16 percent of in-house teams do, and of those teams that do use them, 60 percent do so only for highly creative, high-concept tier 1 projects.

Using creative briefs forces project stakeholders to identify strategic objectives for their projects to guide with prioritization, and when multiple stakeholders are involved, creative briefs force them to agree on what they want to see before the review and approval process. This helps projects move quicker and smoother from start to finish and avoids delays in the proofing process. With the cost of rework averaging between 40-60 percent of total project spending, it’s easy to see how eliminating this hassle could have a huge impact on productivity and profitability.

2. Use a streamlined, transparent work management software solution.

When requests come flying in from all directions and multiple sources, it can be nearly impossible to keep track of it all. As a result, instead of prioritizing based on strategic impact as they should be, creative teams still say deadline remains the #1 criteria for prioritizing assignments. Lack of visibility into the project queue means that no one knows who’s working on what, and high-value projects often suffer with missed deadlines and rushed work. These “unstructured” work requests also lead to unstructured status updates—those drive-by check-ins, emails and phone calls that interrupt the flow of more important work, and paralyze creativity.

Establishing a structured process for submitting work requests can eliminate this chaos and provide visibility into the work queue to prevent overloading the team with low-priority projects. This increased visibility allows any organization to “align business strategies with execution, so managers can continuously plan and monitor strategic, operational, and tactical goals.”

As an example, at mail-order fruit and corporate gift company Harry & David, implementation of a work management software solution has enabled the creative team to be more organized and effective. “It’s given us a much clearer picture of the work that’s in the department, the work that’s been completed, and the work that’s coming. It’s made us more disciplined in enforcing processes both internally and among our requestor groups,” said Greta Mikkelsen, Director of Creative Services.

3. Implement a formal, digital proofing and approval system.

Proofing and approval can be a nightmare, especially when multiple stakeholders are involved. Each wants to weigh in, provide input and have their feedback heard. If someone doesn’t respond quickly, the entire project is held up until they kick it forward—unless there’s conflicting feedback, in which case the project can quickly take a giant leap backwards. This puts the creative team in the awkward position of not knowing which input to implement, which to ignore, or how to compromise all while feeling tremendous pressure to still meet impending deadlines despite the chaos and conflict. Digital proofing and approval systems can resolve this problem, bring order to the chaos and help the entire team stay organized and on track.

By uploading proofs to a single, shared location that everyone can access, stakeholders can view and discuss suggested edits before the creative team starts making the changes, eliminating the back-and-forth confusion and re-work because of conflicting feedback. Revision conflicts are eliminated. The entire organization can see where projects lie in the queue, and it helps the creative team avoid proceeding without proper authorization, achieve accountability, and stay on track to meet deadlines and expectations.

4. Allow for flexible work hours/environments.

Most everyone can relate to the “light bulb” experience—that moment when the solution to a problem suddenly comes to you in a flash of brilliance. For creatives, that moment can happen at any time: in the shower, at the park, on the train. Maybe you’re a morning person, who does your best work from 4 a.m. to noon. Or, perhaps the frenetic energy of a local coffee shop fuels your inspiration. Companies must recognize that creativity doesn’t always follow a set schedule. Ideas, designs and concepts can emerge anywhere at anytime, and some people naturally work better “after hours” or in unstructured environments. Creatives work best when assigned “the work that needs to get done,” not “the hours that need to be worked.”

Part of the challenge for employers in allowing this flexibility is trust—they fear employees won’t get their work done without constant oversight. Yet, studies show that employees have a far higher engagement and are more productive when they have more freedom in when and where they work. And, it’s important to note that already roughly one-quarter of creatives say they spend less than two hours a day actually doing creative work at the office, with meetings, status updates, email and other interruptions hampering their creativity and productivity.

Tools like laptops, tablets and smartphones make it easy to enable this type of work flexibility, while also maintaining accountability. Nearly half of creatives already use mobile devices on their own to capture inspiration and record ideas on the go, and 30 percent say they would like to create more using tablets. By providing the right tools, including access to cloud-based services for work request management, tracking project status, proofing, approvals, etc., companies can empower their creatives to work wherever and whenever is best for them, providing the perfect blend of structure and freedom that fuels outstanding work.

Structure without Smothering

While it’s true that smothering your team with red tape, excessive protocol and processes that add to their already overwhelming burden can kill every last shred of creativity, adding just the right amount of structure can actually unleash even more creativity by relieving your team of the burden of busywork, re-work and wasted time. By eliminating these obstacles, like chasing down information, excessive meetings, redundant status updates and more, creatives will have far more time to do what they do best—create, rather than get bogged down in mundane tasks and project chaos.

Uncovering more creative time translates directly to better employee engagement, improved morale and enthusiasm, more “in the zone” performance and better project outcomes as a result. Being organized ensures better individual, team and company performance by helping your organization put its absolute best work in front of customers, rather than compromising on “good enough” just to get the work out the door.