Creativity as a Practice in Projects

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Developed by Jakob Hildebrandt Andersen



Creativity is a concept familiar to most people. Creativity has many different definitions from different scholarly disciplines, however in the last decades two definitions has general been agreed upon:

  • “Creativity is defined as the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others.” – Robert E. Franken, Human Motivation
  • “Creativity is generating new ideas and concepts, or making connections between ideas where none previously existed.” – Mitchell Rigie and Keith Harmeyer, SmartStorming

The first definition is focuses on creating novel ideas that are relevant in some way. The second definition emphasizes that a creative idea are either completely new or a new connections between to existing ideas. Creativity and to create was first introduced in 17th century by the Polish poet Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski as the ability to create novel poets. It would take another century before the concept was adapted to something closer to how we perceive it today. In the 18th century prominent persons like Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei and Sir Isaac Newton all disrupted the existing paradigms, and gave the confidence that everybody could be creative, and it was not just a divine talent. This inspired creativity to be something not only reserved for the artists, but rather an approach to problem solving [1]. In the 20th century creativity got the attention of psychologists who researched the creative behavior and even made a handbook of creativity [2]. It was also in the 20th century creativity started to receive recognition by the industry, as the market became more complex and changing, it required a new way of thinking[3]. Neuroscience has emerged this century and has become a new approach to creativity, as technology advances has made it possible to measure brain activity during creative thinking. Neuroscience gives a very scientific notion on what enhances and diminishes creativity, and thus makes a new baseline for how to handle creativity [4]. As mentioned, creativity is a vital part of today’s organizations as it can solve the unsolvable problems and bring competitive advantage. This article will focus on creativity used in organizations, and more specifically projects[5].

Creativity in projects and organizations

Activities at organizations are distributed between projects and departments. Department functions vary in levels of development and daily-operations. E.g. production departments are based more on daily-operations while research and development, as the name states, is based more on development. Creativity is a more vital part of departments with a development function rather than a daily-operations function. Projects always develop towards a specific goal, tries to solve a specific problem. This article will emphasis on creativity used in projects.

A project manager faces three categories of challenges, complexity, human behavior and uncertainty[6]. These challenges can be managed by, among others, system engineering, stakeholder management, risk management and sensitivity analysis, all being very analytical approaches. However the highest performance is achieved when analytical methodologies is linked with creative thinking. Analytical is the safe, straightforward approach to a problem, where creativity is an unclear, random and maybe useless approach. Therefore matching analysis and creativity can achieve the highest performance. Analysis can set the scope, monitor the performance and make incremental improvement, while creativity can “strike gold” by coming up with novel radical ideas. See figure 1, the analytical approach finds incremental changes each increasing performance. The creativity approach finds varying ideas, some very bad, but some uncovering completely new potential[7]. This is all based upon the assumption that the problem is of a high level of complexity and uncertainty. By referring to the Cynefin Framework [1] a creativity approach fits very well within the chaotic and complex domain. The complicated domain can also benefit from creativity, but within the simple domain, creativity can easily become a waste of resources and a disturbance of the project current activities.

Creativity is often perceived as only necessary at the initial phase of a project, to facilitate the idea that sparks a business case. However creativity can be used in all phases of the project, from initial concept to finalization. Again, this is only based on very complex and uncertain projects. With very simple projects creativity is often most effective in the first stage. Figure 2 illustrates this situation on Coopers Stage Gate Model[8]. Figure 3 illustrates how ideas could be generated in all different stages of a project and meanwhile identifying new problems. All the ideas seen in figure 3 could be effectively developed through creative processes, since these facilitate open minded, cross-functional, knowledge based ideas. Creativity is the enabler of team based problem solving [9].

Figure 1. Creativity method compared analytical method in a complex environment
Figure 2. Creativity used in different stages of a project
Figure 3. Example of how creativity is necessary through all project phases

Controversies and misconceptions

Creativity is a popular subject and because of lack of scientific evidence it has a number of controversies and paradoxes. Some of the most essential ones are summarized below.

Criticism vs. non- criticism

Especially during brainstorming sessions you are continuously told that you shouldn’t be critical towards other’s ideas. This is mainly because of the fact that criticism is linked to being analytical and thus fitting not in a creative mindset. Jeffry Paul Baumgartner challenges this popular notion and says that criticism, if asked and used appropriately, can great increase the quality of the ideas. The criticism motivates the idea owner to take a defensive position and expanding his idea to overcome the critical question[10][11]. There is still much disagreement about this controversy, and today most people support the non-critical approach to creativity.

Constraints vs. freedom

Many perceive creativity as something that thrives in a limitless, “everything is possible” environment. However Balder Onarheim found that constrains to creativity is in fact enhancing creativity [12]. Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg who investigated several European companies that had been trying out innovation/creative processes confirms this viewpoint [13]. The more accurate constraints you can add to a problem, the more creative people are when solving it, and the more valuable ideas you get. This gives the project manager the difficult task of establishing clear constraints before any creative process.

Individual vs. group

‘’He is a creative person’’ is often heard at organizations, creativity is something related to a person, not a group or a process. Certainly there is experts that are truly creative and come up with great ideas, but a group can be just as creative, or even more so. Group creativity requires appropriate facilitation and it is a difficult task. Today it is getting increasingly important with creative groups, rather than creative individuals as the environment is getting increasingly complex. A creative group can comprehend more expert knowledge than any one individual. [14]


Creativity is not all good there are advantages and disadvantages. The advantage/disadvantages can be divided into team level and organizational level.

Advantages at team level

The following benefits the team, assumed that the creative process is handled professionally and appropriately. Creativity can work as a teambuilding exercise. Creativity is happening on a conceptual level, and therefore everybody is able to participate. As everybody can participate, the team develops, and everybody can see his or her contributions to the progress. Working creatively is also rewarding in itself, since generating ideas is making a feeling of fulfillment. Creative processes is also able to open op the minds of more “closed” analytically team members. Leverage of knowledge and experience is also often a benefit from a cross functional creative team.


  • Building emotional involvement
  • Generating new ideas
  • Increasing teaming
  • Leveraging and increasing knowledge
  • Opening minds
  • Stretching the performance of people


Advantages at organizational level

The advantages of the organization is directly linked to competitive advantages. Organizations environment, competitors, markets etc. is experiencing an accelerating rate of change, and thus reacting quickly and working with novel technologies requires a high level of creativity. As the environment is in rapid change, it is also getting increasingly complex, and while complexity requires highly analytical skills, the problem solving requires creative skills. The society is becoming more globalized. Globalization both poses a threat, as well as a new field/option to work with creatively.


  • Build competitive advantages in a market with
    • Accelerating rates of change
    • Rapid technological change
    • Increasing complexity of the environment
    • Globalization of business competition
    • Transition from industrial to knowledge-based society


Disadvantages at team and organizational level

The disadvantage of creativity is that it challenges the current situation and progress of the project. A project can take a completely unexpected turn during a creative process. Creativity also challenges the authority, by definition you need to neglect authorities when working creatively. Both of the mentioned disadvantages can cause anxiety and dissatisfaction within the project team. From a manager’s viewpoint, creativity can also be a very inefficient way of operating, since it requires a lot of time and most of the experts. And while it is a very costly process, it is, as mentioned earlier, a very unpredictable process and therefore valuable take-away is not guarantied. This last disadvantages is the main reason why creativity is not seen as much in projects as it could be. The disadvantages mentioned could both be small scale on team level and large scale on organizational level. The disadvantages get to organizational level as soon as the ideas are suggested to the management, a “killer idea” can completely disturb the organization and be a large waste of resources.

  • Causes anxiety
  • Challenge authority
  • Upset team
  • Upsetting the status quo
  • Waste of resources


How to facilitate creativity

There are numerous different methods and theories to facilitate creativity. In the book Creative, Efficient, and Effective Project Management Ralph L. Kliem divided the different methods and techniques among the main phases of a project life cycle.

  • Defining
  • Organizing
  • Planning
  • Executing
  • Monitoring and controlling
  • Closing

Creativity, as mentioned earlier, is relevant in all phases of a project, but in varying ways. Therefore the methods selected fits specifically to each of the six phases. Notice that not all the presented methods are direct incubators of creativity, but some works on the analytical framework around the creativity process. [18]


The defining stage is the initial of the six stages. This is a vital part of a project, as it describes exactly the direction of the project. This is also the moment where there is least information about the project. This stage is also difficult as there often is little communication with the stakeholders, and many stakeholders have not fully been found yet. Focus is on quickly starting and delivering results.

Typical deliverables in the defining stage:
  • Business case
  • Project charter
  • Requirements documentation
  • Scope definition
  • Stakeholder analysis
  • Statement of work

Suggested methods

  • Benchmarking Interviewing
  • Lateral thinking
  • Matrices
  • Modeling
  • Nominal group technique
  • Offsite
  • Problem solving
  • Reengineering
  • Roleplaying

The methods focus is on the main challenge, to receive information and identifying and engaging key stakeholders. In the defining stage having people in the project with high creative skills helps a lot in starting up the projects in the right direction. [19]


As the scope of the project has been set, the second stage establishes the necessary structure to efficiently and effectively manage the project.

Typical deliverables in the organizing stage:
  • Control room
  • Forms
  • Management plans
  • Newsletter
  • Organizational structure
  • Project manual
  • Reports
Suggested methods
  • Checklists
  • Field trip
  • Idea bulletin board
  • Interviewing Matrices
  • Modeling
  • Observation
  • Offsite
  • Roleplaying

The creative methods of the organizing stage shall help develop the proper communication, coordination and information structure. The challenge is to balance structure and freedom, so structure does not prohibit the project performance. [20]


The planning stage decides on the specific activities to achieve the project goals and objectives. As the definition stage works with, who, what, where, this stage works with how?

Typical deliverables in the planning stage:
  • Cost and time estimates
  • Issue management
  • Management plans
  • Network diagram
  • Responsibility assignment matrices
  • Risk assessment
  • Schedules (e.g., milestone chart, bar chart, precedence diagram)
  • Work breakdown structure
Suggested methods
  • Offsite
  • PDCA cycle
  • Roleplaying
  • Storyboarding
  • Synectics
  • Tree diagram
  • Workflow analysis

The planning stage is highly relevant for creativity processes, compared to any other face. It is filled with opportunities that can be creatively exploited. The project should be planned so it will progress in the most efficiently and effectively way. To often planning is kept to a few managers with focus on the deliverables and the resources. [21]


As the name implies, the executing stage applies the previously made plan to fulfill the requirements and objectives

Typical deliverables in the defining stage:
  • Assessments and audits
  • Change management
  • Conflict resolution
  • Issues management
  • Meetings
  • Product or service
Suggested methods
  • Affinity diagramming
  • Analogies, metaphors, and similes thinking
  • Brainstorming
  • Brainwriting
  • Crawford slip technique
  • Devil’s advocate
  • Fishbone diagram
  • Force field analysis
  • Hypothetical scenario
  • Nominal group technique
  • PDCA cycle Problem solving

The executing stage is where creativity usually is exploited in projects. This can e.g. to develop a product or service. This is also the stage where many activities are running and the complexity is high. If something unexpected happens, creativity can be the only way to solve it. A challenge in this stage is to achieve agreement on either the proposed solution or even the definition of the problem. [22]

Monitoring and controlling

This stage is very close linked to the preceding stage executing, and often runs simultaneously. The purpose is to monitor and control the process and deliverables and make the necessary preventive actions.

Typical deliverables in the defining stage:
  • Change request disposition
  • Configuration management
  • Corrective action
  • Management reserve
  • Procurements
  • Quality control
  • Replanning
  • Risk response
  • Status collection and forecasting
Suggested methods
  • Analogies, metaphors, and similes thinking
  • Benchmarking Devil’s advocate
  • Interviewing Matrices
  • Observation
  • Pareto chart PDCA cycle
  • Problem solving Scatter gram
  • Trend chart

This is a very analytically stage, and therefore not highly creative. However the stage is often suffering from loss of communication and information. Creativity can be used to build the necessary platforms and encourage communication. Just like in the organizing stage. [23]


The last stage is to close the project efficiently and effectively. The last activities are to address and close the administrative, financial and legal matters. This stage also has the purpose of capturing the learning’s from the project.

Typical deliverables in the defining stage:
  • Contractual closure
  • Financial closure
  • Lessons learned
  • Requirements verification and validation
  • Reviews and audits
  • Winding-down activities (e.g., release of resources)
Suggested methods
  • Affinity diagramming
  • Benchmarking
  • Brainstorming
  • Brainwriting
  • Checklists Devil’s advocate
  • Idea bulletin board
  • Interviewing
  • Nominal group technique
  • Offsite
  • Role playing
  • Scatter gram
  • Statistical process control
  • Trend chart

The closing stage is often forgotten, as the interesting development is finished, and people seek new opportunities elsewhere. Therefore creativity can serve as a catalyst to make this part of the project interesting and ensure a proper involvement. [24]

Additional methods

In addition to the mentioned methods from Ralph L. Kliem’s ‘’book Creative, Efficient, and Effective Project Management’’, the following two methods are included:

Separate analysis and creativity

The frontal lobe of the brain works as the “sense-making” analytical part of the brain. It has been proven that limited activity in the frontal lobe has caused increased creativity. Initially this was realized as patients suddenly started to paint and be very artistically after the frontal lobe was damaged [25]. This argues, together with many other observations, that while being creative, all analytical thought processes should prohibited. This requires immense control by the project team and project manager.

Picture cards

It has been found that long association connections are facilitating higher quality of creative ideas. The brain develops paths of electrodes as it gets knowledge and experience, however if you need to develop novel ideas you need to take other paths. These other paths are difficult to take without some sort of random inspiration. This has developed the method of picture cards. You pick a random card picturing a person, place or a thing, and from this you try to develop a relevant solution to your problem [26].

Implementation advice

This article has suggested a wide number of creative methods, techniques and mind-sets. Creativity is in its nature not a strict processes, it’s important and necessary to adapt creativity processes to the specific problem and teams of the projects. Therefore the selection and usage should be up to the individual project manager that knows the problem and teams the best. The PMO of an organization can only give guidelines and inspirations of creative processes, or provide a general design process. Therefore it is highly relevant that the project manager knows the creativity methodologies as well as his team and the problem his facing. [27]


Two short examples have been selected to emphasize on some of the statements here in the article. Both cases were presented in 42433 - Advanced Engineering Project, Program and Portfolio Management.

Creativity at Novo Nordisk

From Novo Nordisk came a portfolio manager from facilities development, where focus is on the development of the necessary facilities for a new drug. This stage is a very straightforward simple process. Therefore creativity was not applied in other instances than the initial planning of the new facility. This is a example where creativity is less required, as it is a some-what known problem statement and best practices is known. [28]

Creativity at Femern Link Project

The Femern Link is an 18 km tunnel project of about 40,7 billion danske kroner. Creativity is highly used and valued in the construction of the Femern Link. Even though many tunnel projects has been build before, every new tunnel project has to review all decisions. The range of choices between machines, construction elements, landscape design and new technologies all adds to the complexity of the project. Some examples of creativity inputs is listed below:

  • The Femern Link will use LED light with flying birds to decrease the enclosed feeling.
  • Holograms or water projections was considered as stop signs.
  • You drive over a hilltop prior to the entrance to give you great visuals what you are going underneath
  • The Femern Link is the largest combined road and rail tunnel, and uses completely new construction elements with intelligent escape system.


List of mentioned methods

Below methods is the methods mentioned in this article. Confront Ralph L. Kliem’s book ‘’book Creative, Efficient, and Effective Project Management’’ for more detailed descriptions.

  • Affinity Diagramming
  • Brainwriting
  • Brainstorming
  • Checklists
  • Compare and Contrast
  • Crawford Slip Technique
  • Delphi Technique
  • Devil’s Advocate
  • Field Trip
  • Fishbone Diagram
  • Force Field Analysis
  • Hypothetical Scenario
  • Idea Bulletin Board
  • Imagineering
  • Interviewing
  • Lateral Thinking
  • Matrices
  • Mind Mapping
  • Modeling
  • Nominal Group Technique
  • Observation
  • Offsite
  • Pareto Chart
  • PDCA Cycle
  • Problem Solving
  • Reengineering
  • Role Playing
  • Scatter Gram
  • Statistical Process Control
  • Storyboarding
  • Synectics
  • Tree Diagram
  • Trend Chart
  • Workflow Analysis


  1. Barbara Kerr ‘’Encyclopedia of Giftedness, Creativity, and Talent’’ Sage 2009, p425-427
  2. Dean Keith Simonton, The Psychology of Creativity: A Historical Perspective, University of California, Davis, p1
  3. Amabile, Teresa M., Blackwell Encyclopedic Dictionary of Organizational Behavior — 2005, pp. 1
  4. Mallgrave et. al. The architect's brain: neuroscience, creativity, and architecture Wiley-Blackwell
  5. Ralph L. Kliem, Creative, Efficient, and Effective Project Management Auerbach Publications 2013, p2
  6. Christian Thuesen & Josef Oehmen Lecture 1 Course 42433 - Advanced Engineering Project, Program and Portfolio Management, Sept 2014
  7. Ralph L. Kliem, Creative, Efficient, and Effective Project Management Auerbach Publications 2013, p36-37
  9. Ralph L. Kliem, Creative, Efficient, and Effective Project Management Auerbach Publications 2013, p14
  11. Matthew Feinberg et. al. ‘’The ‘Rules’ of Brainstorming: An Impediment to Creativity?’’ Institute for Research on Labor and Employment Working Paper Series (University of California, Berkeley), 2008
  12. Balder Onarheim, ‘’An Introduction to 'Creativity Constraints’’ Proceedings of The XXIV ISPIM Conference 2013
  13. Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg ‘’Innovation as Usual’’, LR Business 2013
  14. Ralph L. Kliem, Creative, Efficient, and Effective Project Management Auerbach Publications 2013, p6
  15. Ralph L. Kliem, Creative, Efficient, and Effective Project Management Auerbach Publications 2013, p4
  16. Ralph L. Kliem, Creative, Efficient, and Effective Project Management Auerbach Publications 2013, p1-4
  17. Ralph L. Kliem, Creative, Efficient, and Effective Project Management Auerbach Publications 2013, p7-10
  18. Ralph L. Kliem, Creative, Efficient, and Effective Project Management Auerbach Publications 2013, p159-165
  19. Ralph L. Kliem, Creative, Efficient, and Effective Project Management Auerbach Publications 2013, p167-177
  20. Ralph L. Kliem, Creative, Efficient, and Effective Project Management Auerbach Publications 2013, p181-191
  21. Ralph L. Kliem, Creative, Efficient, and Effective Project Management Auerbach Publications 2013, p193-206
  22. Ralph L. Kliem, Creative, Efficient, and Effective Project Management Auerbach Publications 2013, p201-226
  23. Ralph L. Kliem, Creative, Efficient, and Effective Project Management Auerbach Publications 2013, p231-243
  24. Ralph L. Kliem, Creative, Efficient, and Effective Project Management Auerbach Publications 2013, p247-258
  25. De Souza Et Al. ‘’Frontal lobe neurology and the creative mind’’, Frontiers in Psychology 2014
  26. Balder Onarheims lecture ‘’How to get great ideas’’ the 22 october 2014
  27. Ralph L. Kliem, Creative, Efficient, and Effective Project Management Auerbach Publications 2013, p12-16
  28. Novo Nordisk presentation 21-11-24 in 42433 - Advanced Engineering Project, Program and Portfolio Management at DTU
  29. Technical director of the Femern Link Steen Lykke presentation 21-11-24 in 42433 - Advanced Engineering Project, Program and Portfolio Management at DTU
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