Is project planning for creative work in marketing as boring as it sounds?

Project planning for creative work sounds boring, but successful marketing execution delivers on-schedule, effective marketing campaigns built around managing creative projects. Whether the creative element is in the business plan, the launch strategy, the graphics, the copy, the product design, creativity lurks everywhere. And creativity, while desired, can often throw a wrench into timelines and budgets.

Here’s what we have learned from managing projects where business goals intersect with technical and design creative work.

Deadlines, budgets, and other boundaries drive creativity, but unrealistic deadlines and budgets will ultimately crush creativity and the commitment of your team.

I am a wholehearted disciple of the school of thought that believes that structure drives creativity. The tension with true creative work on a schedule is that creativity is a process, and what is desired is a deliverable. Most marketing campaigns require coordinating the contributions of more than one person, and much of the work involves some creative component. For this to be coordinated, adequate time must be planned, not only for the creative work itself, but for the project planning, research, Q&A and clarification, drafts, reviews, and nuts and bolts activities that are required for a successful project.

So no, Project planning for creative work is not as boring as it sounds. It’s an art and science, requiring both creativity and discipline, and it is possible to learn.

Set aside time to do an initial project plan.

Once your marketing project has been requested or initiated, It is necessary to do some preliminary project planning. During this phase, it is critical to identify the key stakeholders, classify stakeholder needs and wants, and define the goal, objectives and key deliverables. Communicate that the first step after project initiation or request is this initial project planning phase to develop a preliminary schedule and costs.

The stakeholders are very likely not your team members, so it is important to get the project goals and requirements from the stakeholders in a form you can share with your team. In fact, these goals and requirements will shape who becomes part of your team.

Equally important: clarifying which requirements are needs and wants. At the highest level, identify which of the three constraints: cost, quality, schedule, is most important to your stakeholders. You are likely to arrive at this high-level assessment by asking a cascade of more specific questions that will reveal the project requirements. Where stakeholders disagree, it is important to get stakeholders to come to an agreement. If stakeholder agreement is not possible, propose a project that meets requirements that are a compromise of differing stakeholder requirements and get stakeholder approval. If the high-level constraints create impossible project conditions (e.g. lowest cost, short schedule, high quality), it is time to have a difficult conversation with your stakeholders and get priorities and expectations reset to reflect reality.

Estimate the level of effort required for each requirement to be met.

Once your requirements are known, it’s time to assemble a team to help you estimate what will be required to meet your project requirements. You can assemble your team at this point or have conversations with people who have the expertise your team members will likely have to accurately estimate the level of effort required. In order to make this estimate a useful predictor, it is helpful to list a set of assumptions for your estimator that reflects what you learned from the stakeholders about project requirements, priorities, resources, and budget. Use your team’s input and judgment to help arrive at an estimate in terms of the level of effort in cost, time, and other resources, to achieve project goals and requirements.

Start with the delivery date and work backward

This sounds obvious, but this simple exercise is often overlooked. Starting with the delivery date on the calendar and working backward from final campaign review and approval to the original inputs is a great way to see if there is enough time for the project as scoped. It is not always necessary or possible to change a deadline. Many times the deadline is enforced by something outside your control. However, the complexity of the project is within your control. Simplifying your project to include the bare minimum “must have” from all the “nice to haves” can help clarify if the project deadline is doable. Sometimes it isn’t, and expectations will have to be reset. However, being able to show your stakeholders a timeline on a calendar is a persuasive tool for demonstrating that either a deadline or requirement must be changed for project success.

Develop a detailed project plan.

After agreeing to preliminary cost and schedule estimates with your team and your stakeholders, and you all agree the project can go forward, it is time to get the team together and develop the detailed project plan. Your first step is to develop a work breakdown structure (WBS) that takes each goal and cascades it to objectives, tasks, and subtasks.

There are two key elements for success in developing the detailed project plan.

  1. Full team participation. This is a group activity and should be done in person.
  2. Correctly defining goals, objectives, tasks and subtasks. Many times the WBS is deeply flawed and can’t be used because goes, objectives, and tasks are confused with each other.

The importance of team participation.

It is critical that when you make your team assignments that you make it clear that their full participation in the planning process is a requirement. Team members who cannot make that commitment should be replaced with someone who can. The reason for this is that participating in this process builds commitment to the plan, and it also helps build the team. Seeing what is critical for another person’s work helps team members own their contribution as having a greater impact beyond themselves. This builds respect and camaraderie within the team. Later, in the thick of the project, when the unexpected happens, the shared principles that the team used to develop the project plan will allow them to respond with resilience and creativity, rather than blame and responsibility-shifting.

Defining goals, objectives, tasks and subtasks.

Goals are simply a desired outcome. For example, the desired outcome for a website project could be to increase revenue.

On the other hand, objectives are specific, time-bound actions that satisfy requirements. For example, three objectives could be set to meet the general goal of increasing revenue through a website:

Objective 1. Add a blog with posts of interest to potential customers/site visitors;
Objective 2. Create a website contact page to collect leads;
Objective 3. Add a products or service page with the ability for customers to make purchases while visiting the website (web store).

Tasks under each objective would be the individual steps that need to be taken to achieve each objective. For example, to achieve Objective 1, adding a blog to increase site traffic, steps might include the following:

  1. Measuring existing site traffic;
  2. Research the customer persona to help identify blog topics of interest;
  3. Perform SEO analysis;
  4. Generate a keyword list based on SEO and customer persona research;
  5. Develop a blog topic list based on your keyword strategy;
  6. Assign blog topics to blog authors and image designers;
  7. Have authors write blogs; image designers design image for blogs;
  8. Post blogs on website with keywords assigned to each blog based on the keyword strategy;
  9. Publish blogs;
  10. Measure site traffic with each blog post;
  11. Adjust blog post order, content, or keywords in response to data.

Close out your project with a party and a wrap-up project meeting.

When a marketing project is complete, make sure the entire team gets together for two separate activities: a team celebration to celebrate their accomplishments, and a project review to analyze what worked well, what needs improvement, and lessons learned that can be applied to the next project. This should be documented in a way that useful to anyone who participated. A project review should be about learning and problem-solving, not blame. Successes should be highlighted and explained, as should any failures or challenges. While a detailed report may be needed or useful, summary of important takeaways, possibly in a graphic, should be generated. In any format, a brief document with lessons learned and recommendations for future projects will help this team and others as they go on to tackle the next marketing project.

Takeaways

Creativity on a schedule can be challenging, but these challenges can be overcome by communication and project planning early on. While it may seem like it slows things down at the point where everyone is excited to get started, project planning for creative work gives space for creativity and gives something tangible. It allows your team to enjoy the process because their efforts are amplified by the plan, and your stakeholders appreciate that you delivered results.

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