On projects where novelty and innovation are essential to the bottom line, creative professionals – designers, writers, musicians, and artists – are an integral part of success. You manage business people every day of the week and twice on Sundays. But how do you manage creatives, who think the glass should be half full--of kumquats? As an effective manager, you will need to broaden your managerial skills to work with these individuals.
The most important aspect of managing creatives is understanding that their work process is not as linear or deadline-driven as other stakeholders. Giving these individuals the flexibility to find their own way while functioning within the larger organizational context may be your biggest challenge. To best advise you, we have suggestions from interviewees who are both creative workers and managers.
Start Off Strong
When you start a project with a cross-functional team that includes creatives, it’s up to you to create the right environment for them (and everyone) to flourish. Make sure the project brief you start with is just that – brief. While this may be important for everyone on the team, an accurate and precise project brief can give a creative the most scope for exercising the imagination.
Send the brief to your team members before the first project session, which will give everyone time to gather some thoughts. Then, at your first brainstorming session, encourage everyone, including the non-creatives, to participate in generating solutions. As Gaye Mulholland of Gaye Mulholland Design, a graphic designer and visual communications manager, observed, “Teams that are encouraged to collaborate produce better work than those that are forced to compete." No one’s ideas should be shot down as impractical, silly, or off-plan. Good solutions will come up, but at this stage, the goal is to generate quantity, not quality.
When ideas come up at the brainstorming stage but the team appears to be divided, never pit workers against each other in a competition scenario to get “better ideas." Mulholland said, "Eventually these people will have to work in harmony together on the winning solution. As a result, it can be very hard for a creative to put a full effort into something if they have been on a ‘runner up’ or rejected solution. Far better to challenge everyone to work together on finding a way of bringing elements of all good ideas to the final product."
Keep the Ego in Mind
Shannon George, an animation producer and television script writer, noted, “My creative work is a reflection of who I am in a way that other work products aren’t. When a manager tells me that my script is ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ I take it subjectively and personally, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I know how to make it ‘better.’” As a result, she said, how you deliver criticism is essential to getting good results.
Sandwich negative feedback between two positives, even when there is little you like about the result. Instead of being blunt about the changes you need, indicate the problem and give the creative guidance in coming up with the solution.
Mulholland suggested that instead of saying, “Make the logo bigger,” a more effective approach might be to say, “Good job getting this done on schedule. What can you do to make the logo more readable?” This gives the creative worker specific feedback: Nothing is worse than “I don’t like it.”
Your team will collaborate better if they have some idea of what their creative colleagues do to get their jobs done. Demystifying the creative process and showing how labor intensive it is can help team members and project leaders be more understanding of each other's needs and limitations.
The schedule is not the creative’s problem. It’s yours, the manager's. George put it this way: “The creative's work is writing or design. The deadline is her manager’s problem.”
While the creative can produce on demand, what can be a problem for them is producing on a schedule not of their making. Regular check-ins (even throughout the day, depending on the stage of the project) can be effective, so you can be aware of when people are struggling and what measures need to be taken. Managers should take a flexible approach to scheduling creatives while at the same time staying within regular working practices and adhering to deadlines.
Being direct with the creative is essential, whether it is about scheduling, attitude, or output. Sometime it is worth letting the creative work overtime, but there comes a time when the creative has to be encouraged to take a break or even finish. A good manager, over time, will learn the appropriate things to do and say…and when to leave the creative alone to simply get on with the task.