What I’ve Learned About Managing Creative People

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Jul 21, 2010

When Newsweek published an article this month headlined “The Creativity Crisis,” I was intrigued. After all, I’ve spent my life directing and managing creative people and it’s a topic I know something about.

But the article’s focus was all about the drop in scores on a test that measures creativity in children. These scores had been rising from 1958 (when the test was created) until 1990, but have been dropping since then, especially in grade school children. This is a serious problem, Newsweek noted, because “the necessity of human ingenuity is undisputed.”

Well, take it from me that despite the concern about the creativity drop off — a recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs cited by Newsweek identified creativity as the No. 1 “leadership competency” of the future – creativity doesn’t get a lot of respect in many parts of the business world.

Yes, there you can point to areas where creativity is elevated, celebrated, and viewed as a key corporate competency (think Silicon Valley and companies like Google), but in large parts of the business world, there is a lack of understanding of creativity and what it takes to help encourage it.

In other words, how do you manage creative people?

Wanted: an environment to encourage creativity

I don’t know how they do it at Google, but I’ve managed writers, editors, graphic designers, photographers, artists, and other creative types and found the process comes down to one key element: putting people in the right environment to encourage creativity.

That’s the hardest thing for a lot of people in the business world to get their heads around, because there is not one single way that creative people work, nor is there any single path that leads to a new breakthrough or idea.

I often think about a publisher I once worked for who complained to me (I was editorial director) that he saw too many people on the creative team simply goofing off and reading magazines and newspapers, many with their feet up on their desk in a casual manner. They were fueling their creativity I replied, and I noted that creative people need time away from regular tasks in order to do whatever they do to fuel their creative juices. Well, the publisher didn’t buy into that line of thinking entirely, but he told me that he guessed it was okay – as long as the creative types only did it from 9 to 9:15 in the morning.

Tips for managing creativity

I’ve learned a few things about managing creative people over the years, and a lot of them were fueled by that conversation with the clueless publisher who didn’t know anything about creativity or the process it takes to help it blossom and grow. Here are a few of them:

  • Give people adequate time to be creative. No two people have the same method of fueling their creative juices, but one thing is for sure: creativity happens when people can turn off their conscious mind and let their subconscious wander. This takes time, and it doesn’t happen if people have their schedules so heavily booked and organized that they don’t have the ability to let their subconscious do its thing. In my experience, creative people need time every day, free of other responsibilities, to do whatever they do to get the creative thoughts flowing.
  • Encourage creative people to collaborate. There’s a reason that The Beatles, as a group, were far more successful than any individual Beatle was later as a solo act. That’s because the collective energy of a group is often greater than the simple sum of the individual parts. Successful sports teams prove this all the time, and it’s true in the business world as well. Anything you can do to encourage your creative people to collaborate together – to work as a team, brainstorm, and share ideas — will pay off with a better end product. But again, they also need you to give them enough time to do this.
  • Give guidance about what you are looking for. Creative people need a starting point, so it always helps if you can give them a broad outline of what you want – as Apple did with Anthony Michael Fadell and Stan Ng, when they were teamed together and asked to design a new MP3 player that eventually became the iPod . Of course, creativity isn’t always free form, so anything you can do to help narrow the outlines of what you want from your team will help focus their creative juices, and, probably get you a better result in the end.
  • Manage deadlines carefully to help keep business imperatives from overrunning the creative process. Reasonable deadlines are ALWAYS part of the creative process, and creative people generally don’t mind being held to them. The fascinating thing I got out of the Wired magazine article on the creation of the iPod is that the original development phase, where the most creative elements of the device were developed, happened during the initial eight-week consulting contract Fadell signed with Apple. Why eight weeks? Who knows, but giving a creative type two months to develop something like this doesn’t sound out of line to me. Whatever your deadlines are, keep them reasonable and in balance with the business goals you are trying to reach. If they aren’t in synch, you probably won’t see iPod-like results.
  • Give focused feedback. Creative people like feedback, especially if it helps them from wasting time and going down the wrong road. So, part of your deadline process should be to offer focused and constructive feedback about how well they are doing in creating whatever it is they are trying to create. These discussions can sometimes get contentious – as the iPod team found out when they showed their work to Steve Jobs – but they are an important element help to keep the creative process on track as you hone in on the end result.

“Creativity has always been prized in American society,” Newsweek noted, “but it’s never really been understood.” Nowhere is that more evident than in large parts of the business world, where the creative result is the always goal, but the creative process is less-than-celebrated.

Managing creative people is always a challenge and hard to get your hands around. Managers and HR professionals should know this intuitively, but all too often, they don’t. You’ll prosper if you find the right way to encourage creative thinking while also keeping an eye on the business imperatives for your organization.

It’s not always easy, but when creativity and your organizational goals line up and click into place, you’ll know it by the superior business results you’ll see as a result.

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