6 steps to managing creative teams effectively

I decided to write this post because I've seen a trend in business of bringing creative teams in-house. The motivations are primarily cost and control-related, given the competitive landscape and the need for financial prudence. One thing that I've also noticed is that many of these creative teams are managed by non-creatives, who've never dealt with this breed of employee before. While non-creative managers may not have a shared experience with their team members, there are some simple things you can do to ensure that your team is successful.

Over the last few years, I've had the great privilege of working with some amazing creatives. The opportunity to work with some world-class musicians, front end developers, illustrators, filmmakers, back end developers, photographers and graphic designers has allowed me to learn how they work and how to provide an environment that allows them to produce their best. Some of the lessons I've learned can be distilled into the following steps:

Step 1 - Know what you want

The two things that creatives hate more than anything are ambiguity and multiple change requests. Take the time to think your challenge through and formulate a clear vision of your solution. If you're stumped, get input from your team on how best to tackle the problem. Involving them in the process and valuing their input makes them more interested and invested in the project, and makes your job a lot easier. Change is inevitable, but it should be in response to factors beyond your control, not because you couldn't make up your mind about something. Asking your team to change often mid-stream really upsets the groove (see Step 4) and has deleterious effects on productivity.

Step 2 - Give your team very clear directions

What you envision in your head can only be fully and accurately realized if you provide clear directions to your team. Remembering that ambiguity is anathema to a creative, always err on the side of over-communicating your goals and vision during the inception of a project. Draw pictures to help describe what you're thinking; most creatives think visually and pictures are a huge part of our language. You don't have to be an artist to communicate effectively through pictures. Check out Dan Roam's book, "The Back of the Napkin" as proof.

Step 3 - Trust the people you're working with

Once you've provided clear direction, your role from then on is shepherding the process, not micromanaging, or telling your collaborators how to do their job. You've presumably done a good job of assembling a great team, and unless you yourself are a skilled (insert creative skill here), it's very likely that they know what to do much better than you. Have faith in that experience and skill, and you'll be rewarded with great work.

Step 4 - Don't mess with the groove

Creatives don't work in fits and starts. It can sometimes take a while to get there, but when we end up in a productive phase, we don't want to be interrupted .... nay, we *cannot* be interrupted. When a creative hits their stride, they're in the groove, and their productivity and output accelerates like crazy. If you've never experienced that feeling, it's kinda like hopping onto the "East Australian Current" in Pixar's "Finding Nemo" - you get where you want to go a lot more quickly, and the ride is both exhilarating and fun. Give your team ample time to find, hop on and power through their version of the current. Frequent, unnecessary meetings are the bane of existence for most creatives. Leave large chunks of their time (hours, even days) undisturbed so that they can produce.

Step 5 - Be their leader and shield them from bullshit

It's very tempting for everyone in an organization to criticize and offer suggestions for improvement on the work that creatives perform. If you allow that to happen, your team will get frustrated, upset and will not produce their best work. Your role as manager is to be the shield for your team. Let's use a movie industry analogy to illustrate this point more clearly. In moviemaking, producers are the managers, and they assemble a team that includes a director, actors, cinematographer, composer and other supporting roles. The producer is the final arbiter of decisions and is responsible for the success or failure of her project. She creates the protective structure that enables her team to function at its maximum potential, and any feedback goes through her instead of to the individual members of her team. By protecting her team from distractions, she enables them to do their work and benefits from the combined output of their talents. Managing a creative team in your business shouldn't be any different if you want to achieve success.

Step 6- Praise good work!

When your team produces what you want, tell them thank you! Be grateful for the contributions that they make and tell them you appreciate it. If you're not sold on their contribution, take a moment to consider what they do - creatives are tasked with understanding very abstract requests (your goal/project), then translating them into software code or graphics or images and sounds that align with your vision and support the ultimate goal of making customers happy and filling your company's coffers with cash. They are not taking logical, precise data and translating it into a different set of logical, precise data. That's the job of computers. They're taking the logical and transporting it into the realm of the emotional, that place where minds are engaged and hearts are touched. It's a difficult task to accomplish and one that relatively few people are great at. Give them the praise they deserve.

Managing a creative team can be a difficult task if you don't share the same mindset as your charges, but by following these simple steps, you ensure yourself a better chance of success.