The Problem With “Get Creative”

Mike Huang Headshot
Written by Mike Huang
on February 13, 2015

Editor’s note: Stormy waters can pose some challenges to organizations but they also can present new opportunities!

Difficult waters ahead

As leaders, we’re often asked to navigate our teams through difficult project waters. More often than not, the project management triumvirate of Time, Cost (Resources), and Scope are all fixed, allowing little latitude to even the most seasoned managers. Quality cast away as but a mere afterthought, delivered as fenced in by the three walls of Time, Cost and Scope.

You’ve done everything humanly possible to drive efficiencies, get the best people, and ever so tightly manage the scope so there is nothing wasted — no time, no effort. Your team is working with their best effort to deliver on time, in budget, and with all features, to expected quality expectations. You’re a Rock Star.

Then the clouds start to roll in — one of the three sides of the triangle shortened like a hacksaw to the leg of your chair. More often than not Time or Cost (Resources) is decreased, leaving a decreased capacity to deliver. You know that Quality will suffer because you’re still on the hook for meeting the other two objectives, which haven’t changed. Yet you’re given direction by your leadership team to ensure that Quality will not be sacrificed.

The situation is grim. The likelihood for success is dire. Your only option is to escalate.

You need your stakeholder to champion the cause and to allow some leeway in one of those four areas to allow the project to be successful. In order to maintain Quality, one of three things needs to change: the Scope must be reduced, the Cost must increase (add Resources), or more Time must be allowed to complete the project.

Alternatively, Quality can be sacrificed, but this is always a last resort. Often, when Quality is thrown under the bus during development, leadership may be okay with it at the time. But once the product is released to customers or end users, the negative wrath of a shoddy product can be overwhelming. Likewise, the fallout eventually ends up back on the shoulders of the development team to fix the problems that should never have made it into the wild in the first place.

So you approach your stakeholder and plead your case. You hope — and likely expect — that they will be the advocate for the project in which you both have a vested stake. They will stand up, rise tall, and summon the mighty leaders to grant some latitude, empowering you to be successful…

But then, just when you believe that you’re on the cusp of a glimmer of hope, your stakeholder tells you:

“Get creative.”

They’ve given you nothing. Without help, your project will fail.

Yes, you’ve been brushed off and thrown to the side of the road like a dead raccoon. Your project has been left to bleed to a slow, painful death. This is the management equivalent of getting dumped by a text message.

Ultimately, telling someone to “get creative,” “suck it up,” “make it happen or I’ll find someone else who will” is a management cop-out. Good leaders will take the time to listen, understand, and work with their team to find solutions, not just pawn off the responsibilities without empowering them to be successful.

So, what’s a leader to do? There are always options:

1. Seek out new options

Like Captain Kirk, seeking out new life and new civilizations aboard the Enterprise, revisit the common and search the unexplored. Talk to your colleagues and brainstorm once more — really understand if options that were ruled out might have some merit or not. Leave no stone unturned. In fact, look at the “worst case” possibilities and see if there are options that might be hidden amongst those.

Most importantly, do two things:

1. Look for different perspectives,

2. Ask “How CAN we do this?” … it is about the positive perspective — look for positive thought, solutions, and ways to accomplish goals. Naysayers need to take a back seat until the details to give ideas a chance. When was the last time Captain Kirk asked for reasons why something couldn’t be done?

2. Appeal to the stakeholder a second time

You know your stakeholder. Some people eventually come around after additional discussion. If they’re not the type to change their minds, skip this one.

3. Go over their heads

This is a political game you don’t want to play too often. After all, you’re burning bridges with your stakeholder by demonstrating to their superiors that you lack confidence in your stakeholder, even if you do get the support that you need.

4. Champion the cause with others

You may find other sympathetic leaders in the organization willing to help and offer to be champions for your project. Remember that you’ll need to deliver on any promises that you make, and there will likely be a political debt that you’ll owe the new stakeholders.

5. Eject

Like Tom Cruise in “Top Gun,” you can always pull the lever and get out of the plane, but beware of the fallout — relationships, credibility and respect. And as the leader for the project, you’re most likely to take the reputation hit — and get thrown under the bus once you’ve left.

6. Go out fighting

Your hands may be tied, but you’ll go down fighting. In spite of everything, you’ll make this the best product launch you can in spite of the myriad of obstacles in your way. You may surprise yourself at what you can accomplish through tapping the experience, knowledge, and dedication of your colleagues. By empowering your team to make good decisions together, you may even reach your goal!

Sometimes the winds of change are not in the air. There are times when businesses make decisions that may appear to be illogical — or are in fact bad decisions.

Whatever the course you choose, the litmus test for a good decision is whether you can sleep at night knowing that you’ve made the best decision that you could, given the situation.