Every project is also a change on some level. The phenomenon of change within individuals and bigger systems has been studied widely, and it’s been found that change isn’t as chaotic and random as it often feels. There appears to be pattern of psychological experiences and corresponding challenges that we go through when we’re negotiating change. Martha Beck has summarized this pattern into a very accessible model of change that corresponds with the project management cycle.
Here’s what it looks like, what the challenges of each phase are, and how you can leverage each phase of change to be more creative and productive in your creative work:
Stage 1: Death and Rebirth
The Death and Rebirth phase is the phase in which something has happened to trigger the realization that you have to change something. It may have been an instant realization that you’re going to need to change in order to adapt, because of a specific event like a change in the market, or it may have been a gradual realization that change is needed. Either way, you know that life can no longer go on as before.
This recognition tips you into a world of uncertainty, anxiety, self-doubt, and confusion because you don’t yet know how you’ll solve the problem or what you want to create. Depending on the scale of the change that you’re going to be navigating and the degree to which you yourself are going to be required to change, you might find yourself needing to grieve the life and way of being that you’re leaving behind before you can begin to conceptualize a new way of being.
This stage is usually not recognized as part of a project management cycle, but it’s a prominent part of any high-change, agile business, because we return to this phase every time that we hit an obstacle and realize that the plan we had for our project isn’t working. It’s also a natural part of clearing your priorities to make space for new projects, and it’s in this state of confusion and frustration that many of our most creative ideas first germinate.
How to Be More Creative and Productive in the Death and Rebirth Phase
- Unfortunately, because this phase feels bad, and because we’ve been taught that it’s not okay to be uncertain, we tend to try to avoid it. This avoidance only closes down our creativity and gets us more stuck. Learn what anxiety feels like in your body and become aware of the mental stories and fears you tend to habitually return to in this stage. This will help you to notice when you’re feeding your anxiety, and you can learn to stop and relax into those moments so that you become more comfortable with anxiety, uncertainty, and confusion.
- You can get more comfortable with this phase and open yourself up to more creative stimulation by giving yourself more novel experiences where you can practice feeling confused and uncertain. With practice, you’ll soon take these emotions in stride.
- Use the self-doubt and general uncertainty you’re experiencing to question the assumptions you’ve been making about the way you’ve been trying to solve the problem you’re working on. As you question your assumptions, you’ll find new perspectives and unexpected new ways forward.
- Create space in your work life so that you can tolerate the seemingly unproductive nature of this phase. If you’ve over-scheduled your day, you’re going to be urgently trying to make decisions and move your projects on, and there will be no space for the uncertainty, contemplation, and resulting creativity that the Death and Rebirth phase offers.
- Realize that you can take action and begin developing a vision for what you want to create even before your anxiety, confusion, and self-doubt have cleared. Don’t get stuck on trying to eliminate anxiety, confusion, and self-doubt before you move forward.
Stage 2: Dreaming and Scheming
The Dreaming and Scheming phase is the phase in which you begin to conceptualize what you want to create. You start off with a few vague ideas, dotted here and there. At first, the dots don’t seem to connect, but as you research and explore more, you start to notice themes and you begin to pull them together into a more detailed, consistent vision. Finally, having clarified your vision, you’re able to break it down into a step-by-step plan to make it happen.
How to Be More Creative and Productive in the Dreaming and Scheming Phase
- Have a structure for collecting your ideas and guiding your thinking and planning. Charlie’s planners are a great way to break your big project vision down into little steps.
- Be willing to explore and play. If you try to rush through this stage, you’re going to shut down your creativity and end up thinking smaller and creating a plan to create something mediocre.
- Rather than trying to figure it all out on paper or in your head, get out into the real world and test out your rough ideas. This will let you gauge the response and level of interest from other people, feel for yourself what resonates with you, and get feedback that will enable you to refine your idea.
- Give yourself a diverse range of novel experiences – this will expose you to more opportunity to figure out what resonates with you and to come up with ideas for your project. Cross-pollination with other industries often sparks innovation.
- Realize that you’ll probably still experience some anxiety and lack of clarity at this stage. True confidence is created only when you’re taking action and gaining real-world experience, and there are things that you can learn by taking your project out into the real world that you can’t figure out otherwise. So be willing to take action even before you have all of the future steps laid out.
Stage 3: The Hero’s Saga
The Hero’s Saga Phase is named after the stereotypical hero’s tale, in which the hero sets forth on his or her journey, and no sooner has s/he left home when a monster of some sort gets in the way. The hero fights and slays the monster, sets off again, and soon bumps into another monster. This pattern repeats itself and the hero persists on his/her journey, dealing with each monster and setback as it arises, until s/he finally gets to the prize at the end of the journey.
The Hero’s Saga starts when you begin taking your ideas out into the real world, and you’re focused on implementing the plan that you carefully drew up in the Dreaming and Scheming Phase.
How to Be More Creative and Productive in the Hero’s Saga
- Schedule reviews of your plans and progress regularly (weekly and monthly) so that you can adjust frequently to prevent big investments in the wrong direction. Every month or so, pop back and remind yourself of the big picture that you’re trying to accomplish.
- Link up with other solopreneurs and creatives and set up a supportive community and mastermind group that you can turn to for support, accountability, and advice when you’re tired, distracted, frustrated, stuck, or feeling like giving up.
- Work hard, but schedule time to play hard, too. Restore your physical, mental, and emotional energy by exercising regularly, sleeping well, staying connected with your friends and family, and regularly taking time to do leisure activities that you enjoy.
- Celebrate all of your accomplishments – big and small.
- Record all your new, unrelated ideas in your idea garden – ready for you to harvest them when this project is complete.
- Consider outsourcing the procedural tasks that you don’t enjoy.
Stage 4: The Promised Land
The Promised Land is that enviable and often illusive place where your project or change journey is complete and you get to celebrate and enjoy the fruits of your labor.
How to Be More Creative and Productive in the Promised Land
- As with the Death and Rebirth Phase, our sense of urgency often drives us to rush past the Promised Land Phase as we jump into another project. Take some time to consciously celebrate your completions and achievements before you move on to the next thing.
- Look for ways to share your successes and the lessons you learned along the way with others – it’s a great way to build your network and your brand.
- Stay ahead of the curve and don’t get complacent. If your project has launched and needs ongoing maintenance, schedule progress reviews regularly (monthly) so that you can keep tweaking and improving on your delivery.
- As soon as you can, let go of the project by closing it or training someone else to maintain it, so that you have space for new creative projects.
Which Phase Do You Enjoy Most?
Did some of the phases sound unappealing to you? That’s normal – most of us prefer one stage of change over the others:
- If you enjoy the Death and Rebirth Phase most, you’re probably great at coming up with new ideas and love re-inventing the wheel. You’re good at questioning what other people are doing, but you might find it harder to think big and create your own vision or to take action to implement your ideas.
- If you enjoy the Dreaming and Scheming Phase most, you’ll love generating big visions and exploring new project ideas. You probably have vision boards and planning sheets up the ying-yang, but you might find it harder to nurture your ideas in the real world and get them shipped.
- If you enjoy the Hero’s Saga Phase most, then you’ll enjoy being given a vision and project plan to implement and manage. You’re probably great with details, resource management, and getting stuff done, but you may struggle when it comes to finding new ways of doing things and generating creative solutions.
- If you enjoy the Promised Land most, then you’re probably great at tying up loose ends, and tweaking and maintaining projects in the long term, but you might not be very good at questioning the status quo, handling major changes on a project, innovating, or big-picture strategizing.
Ideally, you should look to leverage your strengths, stick to doing what you love, and find team members who can cover the parts of the change/project management cycle that you don’t enjoy. But as Charlie talked about in the Four Dimensions of Business, freelancers and entrepreneurs are often wearing many hats and having to be the full board of directors for their business.
What If You Don’t Have the Cashflow to Outsource Yet?
If you haven’t got the cashflow to outsource the parts of the project change cycle that you don’t enjoy, then here are some tips for managing your project successfully through all the stages of change:
- Awareness goes a long way. We like to linger in the change phases that we enjoy most. If you know which phases of change you enjoy most, you’ll be more likely to catch yourself if you’re unconsciously avoiding progressing your project into the next phase.
- Plan for the whole change cycle. Schedule time to do big-picture, creative thinking and time to plan the Hero’s Saga details, so that you’ll do both. Schedule time to restore yourself and to celebrate along the way.
- Get a coach who will help you with awareness and growing in greater flexibility to manage all of the stages of change.
- Form a mastermind group with a good mix of folks – or just informally use your network of friends to coach each other through the stages that you don’t love.
- Look for opportunities to do joint ventures with people who are great at the parts of the change cycle that you’re not so great at.