Comments on the article:
Simon, L. (2006). “Managing creative projects: An empirical synthesis of activities.” International Journal of Project Management 24(2): 116-126.
The ‘creative class’, has been a subject of theorization in the last years (Florida, 2002). The literature about creative economy and the creative industries have stressed on the increasing importance of creativity and creative workers in the future economy but few articles have studied in depth what do the creative workers actually do. In this sense, the article by Laurent Simon does a good starting exercise to identify the activities that project managers do to manage creative teams.
Theorization is based on an exercise of abstraction and generalization but it is not always based on a ground theory. After years of theorization about management, Mintzberg studied what managers really did in their working time (“The Nature of Managerial Work”, 1973). This anthropological study gave a new view on the managers’ job, time management and managerial practices.
In the same way, Simon has done an anthropological study in project teams in creative industries. He spent 60 weeks (more than a year!) at Ubisoft Montreal for his PhD thesis. This long stay gives credibility to his qualitative research.
His article is a good exercise of a grounded theory and a base for further research in the field.
Nevertheless, there are some points that can be questioned:
A multiple case is a good way of contrasting results and a way of validating the findings. However, the four selected cases are quite different among them (from pure creations from scratch to adaptations) and the depth of the study is very unequal. One to three weeks of observation (or only interviews), might not be sufficient to emerge a ground theory. If the author has based his article on the Ubisoft (video-game) case and then has tried to contrast his findings with the other three cases, this fact should have been explained in his research method.
The “activities” of the creative project managers:
Simon identifies four groups of activities according to the above overview: the project manager (PM) as a sense-maker, a web-weaver, a flow-balancer and a game-master.
Each group of activities could be related a managerial literature:
a) Sense-making – related authors : Weick, Senge
b) Web-weaver – related authors : Hargadon (manager as a knowledge broker)
c) Flow-Balancer- related authors : Csikszentmihalyi
d) Game-starter- related authors : Amabile (incentives)
In his analysis however, some concepts are not well-defined and boundaries are rather blurry. Some quotes that the author uses to justify a group of activities can easily used to justify another group of activities. For instance, Simon writes “… the PM has to develop a macro/micro understanding of the project based on his/her formal and informal, more personal knowledge of the team-members” to justify that the project manager the subgroup “translates the project into vision, goals, objectives, activities and tasks” in the sense-maker group of activities. This point is not develop in a taylorian-fayolian approach of setting a work breakdown structure (WBS) for the team members but to reinterpret the project goals in an individual way for each member. This point is then redundant with the point “Aims at intrinsic motivation” included in the Flow-Balancer set of activities. It is also curious to see that Simon doesn’t identify any activity related to the traditional PM tasks as defined by Fayol.
These unclearly defined boundaries of the sets and subsets of activities take out some credibility to the base of the identification of the groups of activities. Several times in the article, the reader has the impression of some concepts and activities are already been explained.
Summing up, Simon does a first approach to a missing side of the project management research to try to identify the real activities of a PM and gives some very interesting insights about how creativity is managed within a group. It is a good and brave start but more research would be needed to confirm Simon’s proposal.
I teach Project Management at HEC Montreal (in the “Certificats”) and the general approach in Project Management courses is to use the PMI’s PMBOK as a reference. The PMBOK is a set of best practices (at least is what the members of the PMI say) but sometimes it seems more the desired practices rather than the real practices. In this context, Simon’s approach is a rather original in the PM research literature.
Laurent Simon is a professor at HEC Montreal.
Disclosure: Laurent Simon is a member of my PhD committee