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Kirsten McCrea: Project management insights—from the outside. A Coax Q&A.

Just because you don’t have Project Man­ag­er in your title does­n’t mean you are removed and immune from the chal­lenges of man­ag­ing projects (and the peo­ple work­ing on those projects). That’s why the Coax team is talk­ing to peo­ple from all sorts of dif­fer­ent indus­tries about how they man­age their projects (and what we can learn from them). This is the lat­est addi­tion to our pop­u­lar Coax Q&A series.

I would say that the dirty secret of most Artists who are suc­ceed­ing today is that they are extreme­ly adept man­agers. Bohemi­an lifestyle be damned! Tal­ent will get you out of the gate, but man­age­ment takes you to the fin­ish line.”

Tell us about your cur­rent role. What kinds of things do you do every day? What does your job usu­al­ly entail (for those of us who might not know much about it)?

I’m an Artist, Pub­lish­er, and Cre­ative Hus­tler, mean­ing that I wear a lot of hats and every day is dif­fer­ent. Depend­ing on the day, I can be found paint­ing a mur­al, run­ning my art sub­scrip­tion Papir­mass, work­ing on the nuts and bolts of my art prac­tice, or pos­si­bly trav­el­ling to a res­i­den­cy, giv­ing a talk, men­tor­ing oth­er young artists, or work­ing on a design for a client. 

It’s an excit­ing life, but it’s also chal­leng­ing. Some­times I real­ly crave struc­ture and rou­tine. Still, I have the best job in the world, because I wake up every day and get to focus on my pas­sion. I’ve been a full-time artist for 10 years now, and am liv­ing my dream.

How much are you man­ag­ing projects and peo­ple? What kind of projects? Give us an example.

Both Papir­mass and murals require seri­ous project man­age­ment. Each runs on a tight dead­line and there is lit­tle room for error, but plen­ty of room for unfore­seen cir­cum­stances to crop up. And with each, I am rely­ing on a lot of oth­er peo­ple to come togeth­er and make the project happen.

As many an intro­vert will attest, man­age­ment did­n’t come easy. It’s a skill that devel­ops with repeat­ed use, and some lessons are learned the hard way. As I tran­si­tioned from being a stu­dio artist (work­ing alone, on my own things and at my own pace) to run­ning a team at Papir­mass and over­see­ing assis­tants on my murals, I had to devel­op a host of man­age­ment skills.

The sin­gle biggest thing I have learned is that with­out clear com­mu­ni­ca­tion and orga­nized sys­tems, you are set­ting peo­ple up to fail. How can any­one per­form at their best if they don’t under­stand the para­me­ters of the game? I real­ized ear­ly on that I had to have a clear fil­ing sys­tem, an orga­ni­za­tion chart that lays out respon­si­bil­i­ties, well-artic­u­lat­ed dead­lines and goals, and a clear time­line on which the project should advance. I do not excel at this side of a project, but I am con­tin­u­al­ly striv­ing to improve and I know that I’ve advanced leagues since I began.

What’s your approach to man­ag­ing projects and peo­ple? What works when you need to move things forward?

I try to be an affir­ma­tive man­ag­er. I give a lot of pos­i­tive feed­back so that when con­struc­tive crit­i­cism inevitably needs to be deliv­ered, it’s under­stood with­in a con­text of me respect­ing their over­all work and root­ing for their suc­cess. I try to treat my staff as equals, and indeed I do learn a lot from them. In many ways, I pre­fer the idea that we work togeth­er, rather than they work for me. I have pur­pose­ful­ly sought out peo­ple who have dif­fer­ent skill sets than I do, and as such we real­ly are all essen­tial com­po­nents of the team. My staff are always more strate­gic, orga­nized, and tac­ti­cal than I am. I have the big, messy, cre­ative ideas, and they help make them happen. 

This being said, as we grow (Papir­mass brought on 3 new peo­ple in the last year), I have real­ized that I will need to step back and become more of a leader. Being on the same foot­ing works great with a team of three, but larg­er groups need more deci­sive lead­er­ship (and I’ll need to be able to deliv­er feed­back more effi­cient­ly). So I expect that over the next few years my approach to man­age­ment will change.

Art from Papir­mass

How has your back­ground, edu­ca­tion, or past expe­ri­ences informed the way you man­age projects?

Luck­i­ly, I come from a fam­i­ly of man­agers and my step-dad is a small busi­ness own­er. I think that a lot of the din­ner table talk in my child­hood pre­pared me well for enter­ing this role. 

Still, I did­n’t start out want­i­ng to run a busi­ness. In fact, I ini­tial­ly viewed Papir­mass as an art project. Being a full-time artist was real­ly hard in the begin­ning, but I was buoyed by how much I was learn­ing. I can say unequiv­o­cal­ly that my edu­ca­tion, a BFA, did not pre­pare me for project man­age­ment at all, which is a shame. One of the major down­falls of a BFA is the lack of train­ing in how to uti­lize your skills once you’re out of school. It’s very sink or swim. I jumped in and start­ed to fig­ure it out.

Amaz­ing­ly, this naïveté had a huge ben­e­fit: despite the low prof­its in the ear­ly years, I did not quit. I think that most MBAs nev­er would have stuck out some­thing with such a low return. How­ev­er, with art, each year is expo­nen­tial­ly eas­i­er than the one before. As your rep­u­ta­tion grows, your skills solid­i­fy, and you add to your team, the work becomes sig­nif­i­cant­ly more manageable.

When it comes to man­ag­ing projects, what do you wish you were bet­ter at? What do you wish you knew more about?

Like many women, I strug­gle at times with assertive­ness and giv­ing neg­a­tive feed­back. I see a lot of advan­tages to a team-based men­tal­i­ty and a pos­i­tive style, but there are times I wish I could say what I need to with less hem­ming and haw­ing. I’m get­ting bet­ter every year, but it’s not some­thing that comes nat­u­ral­ly to me.

I also wish that I was bet­ter at see­ing the big pic­ture. I’m great at focus­ing on the short to mid­dle term, but things become too fuzzy down the line. One of the rea­sons we recent­ly expand­ed our staff at Papir­mass was so that we could cre­ate a prop­er Direc­tor of Oper­a­tions posi­tion, which includes project man­age­ment as a core respon­si­bil­i­ty. As I said ear­li­er, I can have the big ideas, but I real­ly ben­e­fit from some­one else break­ing them down into con­crete and man­age­able steps.

Fol­low Kirsten on Insta­gram and check out all her dope-ass murals

What’s your best tip or an approach to projects that works for you? Why do you think it works? What’s one pit­fall you’ve learned how to avoid?

In gen­er­al, break­ing big projects down into small tasks is essen­tial. I par­tic­u­lar­ly find that if I am pro­cras­ti­nat­ing, a great tac­tic is to focus on one tiny step I can take to get started.

I’ve used a host of tech­niques over the years to break things down and man­age my to-do list. Cur­rent­ly, I’m uti­liz­ing Asana to man­age my team, and post-it notes to keep my atten­tion on track for the most impor­tant tasks of the day. I’m also exper­i­ment­ing with a Stub­by List”: allow­ing myself a to-do list with only 3 items on it. Focus­ing on the three most impor­tant tasks of the day has been helpful.

A third tac­tic that I am exper­i­ment­ing with is engag­ing with email less. This has its ups and downs. On the one hand, I am able to focus on my most impor­tant tasks far more read­i­ly with­out feel­ing the call of oth­er peo­ple’s pri­or­i­ties. Before, I felt at times that I could be an artist who sim­ply answers emails all day long as their prac­tice. There sim­ply was­n’t enough time for actu­al­ly mak­ing things! But of course, when I inevitably do sit down to con­quer the inbox, there are far too many mes­sages piled up, and I real­ize how remiss I’ve been in respect­ing oth­er peo­ple’s time­lines. It’s a very dif­fi­cult bal­anc­ing act and I have cer­tain­ly not per­fect­ed it.

What’s one thing the aver­age per­son doesn’t know about the kind of work you do?

Being an artist sounds very roman­tic, but the real­i­ty is that I spend a great deal of time on man­age­r­i­al and admin­is­tra­tive tasks. For every roman­tic high­light post­ed to Insta­gram, there are grants to write, bud­gets to bal­ance, job can­di­dates to eval­u­ate, paint orders to place… There is a per­cep­tion that artists are lazy fun-lov­ing hedo­nists, but please under­stand that most suc­cess­ful artists in today’s day and age have worked incred­i­bly hard to get to where they are. In fact, I would say that the dirty secret of most artists who are suc­ceed­ing today is that they are extreme­ly adept man­agers. Bohemi­an lifestyle be damned! Tal­ent will get you out of the gate, but man­age­ment takes you to the fin­ish line.

This post first appeared on Louder Than Ten, please read the originial post: here

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Kirsten McCrea: Project management insights—from the outside. A Coax Q&A.


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