How to Manage and Lead Creative Teams

· collaboration

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Some managers believe that handling and leading a team of creatives can be very similar to taking care of preschool children: they sleep (procrastinate) when they want, they play (work) when they see fit and often whine if things are not to their liking. But does this group delivers results? Oh boy, it certainly does!

It is made of creatives after all: you provide them with a task and a deadline, and they take it on themselves to complete it as they see fit. All that matters is that jobs get done - other details are not yours to be concerned about.

So, what do you need to know to manage a creative team successfully? For starters, you need an answer to the question: What are they actually like?

Characteristics of creative professionals

To understand what makes creative people tick, you have to get a deep insight into their personalities. Numerous psychological studies determined common characteristics of these individuals, enabling managers to understand how their creative employees engage the world.

Those studies have determined that creative individuals:

  • are curious by nature;
  • tend to take risks;
  • have heightened emotional sensitivity;
  • are easy to adapt to the chaotic environment;
  • are highly self-aspired;
  • nurture divergent thinking;
  • are versatile, adaptable, and open to new ideas

All of these traits are clear advantages in the workplace:

  • Curiosity sparks new ideas;
  • Risk taking enables them to tackle difficult problems quickly;
  • Empathy they feel for fellow creative will enable them to work well in groups (but only if other members “share their pain”);
  • Ability to embrace “the chaos” will allow them to perform in any surroundings;
  • Self-aspiration will drive them forward;
  • Thinking “out-of-the-box” will result in unique solutions;
  • Finally, creative personality of these individuals provides the company with indispensable employees capable of making meaningful contributions.

Leading creative teams

Leading creatives is not the same as managing them. To properly lead your creative team you have to be influential, but not intrusive. Leadership has to be apparent - management has to be done incognito.

It is all in the eyes of the beholder - All creative work is subjected to opinions that differ depending on an individual. From time to time you will receive a design, a text or sketch you are not fond of. Don’t let your personal preference be the reason for its dismissal. Run it through the test to if performs well, and make results public.

In his article published in Forbes magazine, Victor Lipman recalled that nationwide focus group testing which proved that the insurance commercial he deemed “ridiculous,” was actually enjoyed by the public. It ran for years to come and became the most successful commercial ever, as well as foundation for further marketing activities.

Meaningful praise over extra money - Monetary reward can easily motivate employees that are performing mundane tasks they have no personal connection to. If they fold more boxes per hour than its anticipated, they should be rewarded accordingly - with bonuses. If morale ever drops, it can be uplifted once again with a small intensive.

Creative employees, on the other hand, invest themselves in their work and create it through the reflection of their preferences. Even though they seem like though and independent individuals, the truth is that they are sensitive about their creations. Therefore, increasing bonus is not as nearly as effective as publicly (or privately - depends on preferences) praising them for a job well done.

Creatives (usually) aren’t leaders - They require guidance and thrive by having a “leadership pillar” to lean on to. However, by putting them in the position of power, one of two things can happen:

  • They never establish authority and become stretched between newly found responsibility and maintaining a positive relationship with former team mates and friends;
  • They go to the other extreme and become dictatorial oligarchs responsible for tension and stress within the team.

Profile of a good leader and a profile of a creative person are very different. According to research, the best creatives exhibit many characteristics that prevent them from being effective leaders: they are rebellious, antisocial, self-centered, and the only time they will stick their neck out is if the comrade is in distress.

Disclaimer: There are rare cases when your top creative can become a leader and take on a managerial position. However, in those cases, you must ask yourself: “Do I want my top creative man to waste his time on organizational issues, or should I allow him to focus on what he does best?”

Managing creative teams

Nobody likes “being managed,” especially not creatives. Therefore, if you need to control their work, do it delicately and discreetly. Even though it was posted more than four years ago, article by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic published in Harvard Business Review, still provides the best insights into managing creative teams. Some of the suggestions given here are taken from that post. Other ones - are just common sense.

No micromanagement - This is a no-go from the start. The best way to keep your creatives under some (if any) sort of control is to provide a general roadmap and let them figure out how they want to travel it. However, to keep their imagination from running wild, develop a style parameter - a set of technical specifications, deadline policies and style guides.

No matter how “artsy” your designers are, they have to remember one rule: they are not creating art for the sake of art itself, but as for the sake of your business. A creative project can go off the track easily, and when it does, it needs to be reeled in before it gets derailed completely.

Finally, allow your creatives to work remotely or off hours - refrain yourself from asking them where they were, what were they doing or how they did what they did.

Not all failure is THE failure - Innovation comes from risk, uncertainty, and experimentation. If something is known to work, it isn’t creative: simple as that. If your creatives try something new and fail, do not scold them. Sit them down and praise their gutsy attempt - they had your business in mind after all. Experiment with every piece of their work. If 1 in 10 proves to deliver results, you can consider yourself extremely lucky. And yes, trials and tests do cost money - but they are less expensive than not innovating at all.

Creative individuals work best with not-so-creative teammates - Like having two star players, having a couple of excellent creatives in the same team can bring more harm than good: they will either constantly compete, either debate and brainstorm for hours, or (as the worst case scenario) ignore each other completely. Therefore, it would be ideal to surround your star creative with team members that complement their abilities

The solution, then, is to support your creatives with colleagues who are too conventional to challenge their ideas, but unconventional enough to collaborate with them. These colleagues will need to pay attention to details, mundane executional processes, and do the dirty work. - Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Provide them only with meaningful and intuitive work - Do not trap your creatives into mundane, non-creative tasks. They do their best work when they are inspired, and nothing breeds inspiration like doing something which has personal meaning. Contrary to them, some employees only care about the paycheck and clocking out - those are the ones you should delegate “meaningless” routine work too.

Be wary of overjustification effect - Research has shown that tasks which are important for an individual, tend to diminish engagement once the individual starts receiving the external reward. And, yes - by external reward we mean money.

To clarify: Let’s say that your job is a project manager at the IT company, but your hobby is cooking. You like your job (it provides you with the means to survive after all), but you LOVE your hobby even though you earn nothing while doing it.

Well, if you ever leave your position at IT company, and start working as a cook, overjustification effect will occur. You will lose motivation, and the thing you once loved will become nothing more than the job.

This goes double for creatives: they will require money to buy food, but they will drive on your genuine feedback and sense of accomplishment - especially if they feel their work is important.

The most important quality, the one that is most consistently present in all creative individuals, is the ability to enjoy the process of creation for its own sake. - Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi

Give them creative (and uncreative) workspace - If your creatives are required to come to the office every day, the worst thing you can do is confine them to the “couple-of-square-feet” cubicle equipped with nothing but essential tools like a computer and post-it notes. Not to mention that different colors of workspace can influence your employees in different ways.

Even though many leading companies of the world have already realized that old fashioned cubicles are not the way to go, there is still debate what is the ideal office setting is supposed to be like.

As far as creatives are concerned, you need to remember three things:

They need the inspiration to create - designate one room on your premises and allow your creative team to turn it into mood room (basically a mood board with walls and chairs). Let them spend unproductive moments there, as it can help inspiration to kick in.

They cannot create all the time, or during the given time - Additionally to the mood room, create a rec room and allow your team to blow off some steam. It is of utmost importance to separate the two: in the mood room creatives should be productive - in the break room, they most definitely shouldn’t.

To create, they have to detach themselves from the surroundings - If a creative asks to work from home, let them. If they decide to put headphones on, or pick up a laptop and move to more confined and private space, they most certainly have a good reason to do so. Creative’s tendency to interact heavily with colleagues when searching for inspiration is rivaled only by their need to seclude themselves when the time for idea realization comes.

To wrap things up

They may be difficult, they may require special treatment, and you may be losing your mind over their work ethic, but your creatives are what propels your business forward.

Even though handling them may seem like a pain, remember that the key lies in trust and very, very long leash.

If you provide them with positive company culture and proper working conditions, they will repay you with excellent work and cutting edge solutions - without breaking a sweat.


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