Managing Creative People

If you’re a good manager, you struggle with giving your team input and direction without stifling their enthusiasm or creativity. This story always reminds me of the importance of that balance:

A man goes to get his car washed and while waiting in line he watches an employee wash a car with great care. The employee buffs out the tiniest blemishes, cleans and polishes every part of that car until it shines, spotless.
The customer tells the manager, “I want that employee to wash my car. There’s a man who really cares about doing a great job. Just look at that car he cleaned.” The manager looked and said, “That’s his own car.”

When good creative people feel ownership of a project they will bust their backs for you. The challenge comes when a project goes sideways and they start to lose some of that mojo. Here are a few ways I keep folks excited about the next round.

1) Avoid too much back and forth

At a restaurant, you wouldn’t ask the waiter to take one order at a time to the kitchen or you might be wearing your chicken parm. Bulk all of your changes and comments. Creative people keep a mental tab of how many times they have to go back to the well.

2) Give all of your parameters upfront

Sometimes people avoid telling creative teams all the facts for fear it will stifle their thinking, when in fact, the opposite is true. Creative people love solving problems. Tell them all the obstacles upfront. Otherwise if the problems come up later, they will wonder why you didn’t tell them in the first place and they lose confidence in you.

3) Give them the problem, not the solution

We all like to speak in executions. For example, clients sometimes like to furnish “helpful” drawings or demand that something be made bigger, smaller bolder, bluer. I get it. When in a recording session I’m tempted to read the script to the talent the way I think it should be read. I want to tell the art director to try a certain font. But I resist and instead tell them the direction I’d like to go and let them come up with the idea. With good creative people, 100% of the time their solution will be better than anything I had in my head.

4) Be nice, but be honest

You may worry about hurting a creative person’s feelings because you are a kind person. However, you can be kind and clear. They need to know that the boss wants a complete redesign because this one isn’t bold enough or is too bold or whatever. People who make their living in a creative field get criticized all the time. That’s the deal. On our best days one out of five ideas gets approved, which means four die. They may push back, but it’s usually because they think an idea will work, not because you hurt their feelings.

5) Give them some room

Of course there will be times you have to be restrictive. But with a motivated creative team you can offer them the chance to try their version in addition to what you need them to deliver. Tell them the problem. If the boss wants to see “X” then tell them. If they want to explore other directions, you’ll consider showing them. Sometimes magic happens in these cases.

People who pursue creative fields love to think and explore. Just point them to the destination, tell them the parameters then hand them the keys.

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