How to avoid a collision course when managing technology and creative projects

A 4 minute read written by Clement May 21, 2015

An illustration of angle brackets and a pencil used together to resemble a closing code tag.

If you’re managing large creative and technology projects, it can be tough to balance the two competing approaches. In the creative corner, you have an ever-changing vision of the solution. In the technology corner, you find black-and-white definitions of “done.”

It’s important to structure your team, schedule, and success criteria based on the type of project you have, or else you risk failure and certain doom. Think of it like a road map that helps you get you to your goal, whether you’re using GPS or instincts to find your way to the destination.

To complicate things more, creative and technology projects often intersect within one large project. So how can you ensure these approaches don’t collide? In this post, I’ll show you why creative and technology projects are different, and how to structure your budget, schedule, and team to be successful.

Finding the starting point

A technology project is easy to spot. It may be a project that involves applying the leading edge of science or creating something with software code in different ways. You could be building a new machine, updating a website, or prototyping a mobile app. The project is not putting emphasis on creative elements such as exploring a company’s brand. Instead, technology is the one holding the reins of the project, and the goal is to apply science and technology to build exciting, tangible products. Think of this as having a defined route from start to finish: the goal is to get from A to B, with no backtracking along the way.

It’s tough trying to define what a creative project is since the concept of “creative” is so broad. You could be painting, writing a script for a play, designing a graphic logo, or sculpting. Unlike a technology project, there is no definitive goal or signpost that tells you that you’re finished. A creative project is a journey to explore. The project aims to convey the ever-changing emotions of its target audience, whether it be the designer or the user/viewer. The end product is often not tangible, but is felt by the end user.

Defining the goal

So the difference between a creative project and a design project is in how we define its success. Technology projects tend to define their success by comparing what has been accomplished against a very measurable set of metrics: the final requirements list. The development team will delve into this list and begin to break it down into milestones and goals for the team to achieve. For example, a goal for a development project could be, “The application must authenticate the user before performing a task (June, 15, 2015).” This is a binary goal: it has either been met or it has not.

On the other hand, a design project defines its success with criteria that cannot be measured during the course of the project. This is because the goals that the team must achieve are subjective in nature. For example, a goal for a design project could be, “The website should reflect the trustworthy, caring, and professional nature of our company branding.” Therefore, it’s very hard to break down these qualitative goals into some sort of metric. Try as you might, there are no easy ways to measure this in a binary manner.

When creative and technology projects intersect

Projects are rarely just creative or just technology-based. For example, a marketing website is a great creative-led technology project. On the other hand, building a user-friendly thermostat would be a technology-led creative project. As such, what route should you take to steer these projects to a successfully completion?

When you’re leading a creative-led project, consider the five following steps:

  • Identify a project lead who understands and maintains the client’s vision throughout the project. The lead will speak on behalf of the client in order to preserve the client’s first impression when the project is unveiled.
  • Spend time understanding stakeholders’ expectations and inclinations.
  • Timebox creative tasks to protect your budget. This ensures there is a definitive “finish” when creating a design or interaction.
  • Tell the whole story with each unveil so you can show how you translated client’s branding and vision into your final deliverable. Since you only get one chance at a first impression, each unveil causes the potential for imagination to change expectations. Be explicit about what decisions need to be made with every unveil to keep the focus on the overall story and final deliverable.
  • Success metrics should be achieved through final product launch/unveil or user testing. These will be measured over time to determine the overall project success.

Conversely when you’re running a more technology-focused project, consider these five following steps:

  • Identify a project lead who has a firm grasp of the product’s architecture and technology. These are the building blocks of your product and are the crux of your success.
  • Create user stories with stakeholders to flesh out their requirements and catch any missing functionality. This helps identify scope creep later in the project.
  • Allot enough time for the team to define acceptance criteria for each user story. This reduces the number of defects that may return post-launch.
  • Demo the functionality regularly to stakeholders to encourage buy-in and get early sign-off.
  • Success metrics can be achieved by evaluating the completion of the project scope with remaining budget and time. Success can therefore be determined immediately upon product launch.

Managing large creative and technology projects is a tough gig. Both sides need to work together even though they have different types of clients with different ways of measuring success. What’s important is that you map out the right approach in order to get to where you’re going. So when you’re done reading, take a look at your current projects and determine which ones are creative-led and which are technology-led. From there, you should be able structure your budget, team, and schedule to achieve the success criteria.