I am a pseudo-creative. I can hack my way through design, user experience, a bit of code and playing the drums. I don’t do any of those things especially well, but I can relate.
But, I have worked with some truly phenomenally talented people—writers, graphic designers, user experience designers, software engineers, musicians, film makers, etc. Over the course of that experience, I have developed strong feelings about how to help incredibly creative people execute as best versions of themselves. And while it is ‘management’ in the business sense, I feel it’s much closer to coaching.
Understanding is Key to Managing Creatives
Creatives are often fragile. They exist in a subjective world, feeling like few people appreciate where they’re coming from or how they got there. Some personalities respond to that challenge with anything but a fragile veneer—hardened, quick and early cynicism that can be off-putting. Others take a more passive-aggressive stance with a compliant outer shell that flips with Jekyll and Hyde speed and cunning.
And, of course, many are even-keeled and reasonable, because they always get their way.
No. Wait. Creatives rarely feel as though they truly get their way and so, are almost always pushing back. That push back is what makes the good ones, great. In my experience, the even-keeled and reasonable ones end up producing mediocre work.
Respect is Key to Managing Creatives
Good creatives have reasons for what they do. That’s super important to internalize as it informs how to listen to them and consider their positions. Understanding an idea starts with understanding the reasoning that led to the idea—the idea itself is merely the output from the input. This is also critical to having a credible position to push back on the reasoning—rather than just pushing back on the idea itself. This translates to fewer feathers ruffled and egos bruised—less attacks, more conversations. Appreciation for the reasoning translates as respect. I’ve found that respect is exchanged simultaneously when the reasoning, not the solution, is what’s debated.
‘I don’t like it’ is bad. ‘I don’t like this about it’ is better. ‘I don’t like this about it and here’s why’ is best.
This goes back to the whole ‘tell me what you want to accomplish’ versus ‘tell me your solution’. Creatives are hired to solve problems, not execute others’ ideas. If your creatives aren’t good enough to solve your problem, then get more talented people. If they are good enough, then let them do their jobs. Despite my pseudo-creative hacks, I always end up with a better solution from far more talented people. But, only if I can articulate what I want to accomplish.
The flip side of this is that creatives, like everyone else, want to feel valuable. So, if they’re spoon fed a solution rather than a problem—even if it’s the best solution—they may rationalize away from it. This may be intentional or unintentional, but either way, that solution might now be off the table despite its value. It’s more effective to provide what you want to accomplish, peppered with steerage toward your potential solution, than it is to provide the idea itself. Then, if they have the same idea, great—everyone wins.
Back when I coached sports, I was part of the Positive Coaching Alliance. A fundamental of the PCA is that coaches share ten positive comments for every negative one. That can be challenging, but it works with creatives. As I said earlier, they exist in a world that’s highly subjective. It makes sense that they need feedback to feel appreciated, understood and valued. Then, when it comes time to be negative—to critically tear something apart—it’s okay, because they understand the bigger picture is positive. I have found that insecure creatives are unmanageable and secure ones will have open, transparent and self-critical discussions. It’s like night and day.
There’s something else here that’s worth stating. Solid reasoning is often defensible. Challenging that reasoning means having the time, intestinal fortitude and quality rationale to support your objections. Good creatives don’t just roll over when challenged, despite org chart realities. They defend and debate. That’s healthy as long as management’s reaction is positive.
If you’re fundamentally left-brained, managing right-brained people can be challenging. In some cases, especially in upper management and tech management, left-brained people can be managing right- or split-brained people. I’ve seen a lot of analytic managers just flat out misunderstand their intuitive team members. They mismanage gray situations with black and white logic and fail to listen and understand the reasoning behind the positions. This is a recipe for alienation in both directions and has resulted in arguments and standoffs.
And to back up one more step, there may be fundamental misunderstanding around who’s who. Stereotyping by team or role is a surefire way to attribute the wrong hemisphere and further amplify differences. It’s likely you have creatives in all kinds of unexpected roles, so look for them. Every manager needs to be able to recognize their right-brained team members, manage them accordingly and get the best out of them.
I realize I’ve sort of painted this as a one-way street—putting it on the left-brainers to understand the right-brainers. Of course, I do believe it cuts both ways. But, the truth is, I’ve seen many lot more left-brainers managing right-brainers than the inverse. Hence the bias.
Bottom line: listen, understand and respect where they’re coming from. Give them problems as input to get their best solutions as output. Take them seriously and appreciate their differences. Know that they often believe in what could be more than what is. And that swinging for the fences is why they get up in the morning. Manage them well and keep them doing just that.