This post is a guest post from Julie Mullins. Before focusing on Project Management, Julie enjoyed a successful career as an Arts and Events manager, freelance Consultant, professional Fundraiser, and a career in theatre and television as an actress, singer and musician. Julie is also a freelance writer and published children’s author. You can find Julie on LinkedIn as well as her blogs at www.blogjulie.com and www.blogjuliearts.com
I am sometimes asked “how does a background in the arts influence your approach to project management?”
I think the first element for me, and likely for others, is curiosity: a habit of enquiry. People who work in the arts are interested in meaning, in the impression and connectedness of things. They are accustomed to interpreting materials, unravelling stories and plots, and analysing the way a ‘narrative’ or creative ‘jigsaw’ fits together. Over time this breeds a natural habit of shifting one’s attention from the helicopter to the detail (where the rubber hits the road) and back again to the aerial view. Artistic people look at problems and challenges from different angles. They must be sufficiently curious to find the key to unpack complex and multi-layered concepts/constructs in a way which is meaningful to artist and audience. And curiosity is an important element in the understanding of a situation and in the disposition required to problem-solve.
Also typical of the arts and useful in Project Management, are the qualities of openness and flexibility: artists and people working in the arts, whether shy or extrovert, have to be able to communicate with all sorts of people in order for a creative project to come together. They are constantly thrown into new environments, new working teams, and expected to adjust, exchange information, to bond, trust and form relationships quickly… and without this social flexibility they would simply not survive in a competitive and fast-paced industry. If they know their product well (their script or methodology) this flexibility and social dexterity can be very useful in the management of stakeholders.
Related to both these elements is communication and enthusiasm: for art is not passive. Art, in all its forms, is driven by the desire to discover something, communicate and express something; something which may be complex or ephemeral. People working in the arts must be able to articulate the why and the how, the technical and creative, qualitative and quantitative aspects of their work to directors, designers, producers, investors, artistic peers, to the media and audiences. And there are no excuses for not delivering. As a result artists’ presentation skills are often keenly honed. Even when a character is eccentric or accustomed to expressing her/himself physically rather than verbally, or with the use of a medium such as sculpture, lights or music, the product an artist or technical artist produces has to have a purpose and a thrust in one direction or another… clear choices must be made… goals articulated… obstacles to expression overcome… risks embraced rather than resisted… and this practise fosters in the makers of art and technology a readiness to ‘put themselves out there’… a passion for ‘getting things done’… for ‘getting a message across’… for aligning and harmonising forces (and people) surrounding their project. This underpinning commitment in an artist’s approach includes appreciation that in meaningful collaborations it is as important ‘to listen’ as it is to ‘be heard’. Artists do not expect to find a ‘one size fits all’ approach to work or to life; many couldn’t think of anything worse. Artists celebrate diversity and complexity, and search case by case, project by project, for a style of dialogue and interaction which is mutually comprehensible. Making art matters to artists – however it may be reviewed or remunerated – so people working in artistic fields are rarely lazy, they do not take things for granted or coast along. Indeed many people in the arts are brave and focused. They know communication, commitment and complimenting energies are required for successful projects to blossom, and when practised over many years this becomes a character trait they can transfer to other roles.
The most obvious quality which someone from the arts brings to Project Management is creativity: however it is also the trickiest to define. I do not assert that creativity in one field necessarily allows it in another. I’m sure a surgeon can be very creative at times but it doesn’t mean she can play the piano. To say someone is creative is to say they can perhaps make something out of nothing… they can imagine and visualise where less creative people may not… they can ‘pull a rabbit out of a hat’ or come up with something unexpected or dynamic while others may stand around and scratch their chin. It doesn’t mean they will always be innovative or even original. It may mean they are authentic and clear in their interpretation, able to convince their audience with an idea, pitch, performance, story, song or sculpture because what they have created and presented is coherent, sincere, believable, interesting or amusing. What creative people do – whether it is truly new or simply rediscovered and reshaped in a different time and place – is make links, and then extend on those links. They look for idiosyncratic and personal ways around a problem or dilemma, because to artists the journey as well as the outcome is important. Artists know and trust that when a collection of people put their heads and hearts together on something that the solution will be a conglomerate of ideas and they don’t resist this fusion, they embrace endeavours which are not ‘the way it’s always been done before’ because in the moment they find themselves, operating with intuition, openness and creativity, they are receptive to nuances which less creative people may often miss. At bottom, a creative person will take risks and dare to do something differently. They will also do what they do with passion.
Finally, what anyone working in the arts, technology and entertainment industries must learn, and learn again, is perseverance: for without the energy, resilience and confidence to persevere in the arts you simply won’t get very far. Why? Because artists face more rejection in a week, a month, or a year than many people face in a professional lifetime. I’m not saying it’s the only high-risk industry or the only profession where rejection and failure is common, of course it’s not, but it is a real factor in the shaping of one’s psyche. An artist’s habit of persevering in the face of adversity, of hoping and believing against the odds, of hanging onto a vision of what they want to achieve and sharing that vision with others again and again until someone else believes and gets on board, is challenging and character building. It creates an inner strength, determination and dogged optimism which is readily transferrable and valuable in other situations; an attitude, ultimately, of rising above whatever or whoever may be pulling you down, of resisting anything which diverts you from your purpose. People from the arts who work in project management will get the job done without excuses for ‘curtain up’ waits for no-one.
These characteristics, as well as education and professional experience, allow me to move comfortably from the business of the arts to consulting and project management and back again. These are the ‘soft skills’ which are very hard to assess from a CV, or even in an interview, but on the job they really make a difference.
I won’t be the first or last manager to discover in my team that ‘attitude’ and ‘character’ is as important as any skill or qualification when it comes to people working together cheerfully and productively. However the more I move between sectors the more I am convinced that investment and trust in ‘artistic attributes’… or more to the point, trust in positive human qualities such as sensitivity, empathy, understanding, flexibility, joy, energy and communication… are a very good bet in a non-exact science.
Photo Credit: TLP – Talbot Lee Photography