Creative Teams

Creative Teams

Sometimes you need to accomplish a job and you can’t do it with the usual list of suspects. These are tasks that require artistry and sophistication, not just brute, managerial force. Such was the case a few years ago when I was tasked with managing a team that would create a video resource that would communicate the core values of our organization. We had highly gifted and talented leaders who all had a stake in the outcome. My first thought was to get everybody to table, gather input, and begin to make decisions. That would have been about a dozen people.

Highly collaborative organizations are great places to work. They empower staff, give everybody a voice, and usually produce the best results. One area, however, where limited collaboration is better than broad collaboration is when creativity is the key to success. Good art is usually the product of one person or a small team of people. Rarely do we find high collaboration alongside eye-popping creativity.

Enter the creative team. A specialized team whose job is to infuse a project with creativity.

Establishing a creative team is something I have the opportunity to observe and participate in a number of times. It is not the same as a project team or a team made by combining people from different organizational areas. A creative team sidesteps the typical organizational structures and methods to free up people to be creative. This article will highlight a philosophy of creativity that frees up artists to be creative while meeting organizational objectives. These suggestions will keep your creative team from slipping into mediocrity.

1. Set objectives while avoiding methodologies

In order to “create” creativity, leaders must manage the outcomes while avoiding management of the process. For good managers, this is perhaps the hardest thing about the creative process. Most managers are trained to set objectives, chart the path to the objective, and hold teams accountable to the process. I once had a boss that like to say, “First we plan the work, then we work the plan.” This is great for most managed projects. When it comes to creativity, however, you need to kill the idea of a managed project.

Instead, set the endgame objectives. Tell your creative team that when finished, this is what you want. Paint the picture for them. For example, “When we are done with this project two things will happen. People will watch this video and cry – they will be moved. They will get up from their seats when it’s over and say to themselves, “God! I want to be a part of that!” Be emotive, be concrete, be passionate. The ideas implanted during your introduction of the project needs to be short, pithy, and powerful. Don’t share numbers with them, and don’t tell them how to do it.

Methods for reaching the objective should be part of the creative process. Avoid setting forth methods. Patton once said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” After inspiring them with what they project will accomplish, don’t make the mistake of deflating their dreams by telling them how they will accomplish it. Let them have the fun of the journey.

2. Get the right faces at the table

Think small. Think very small. Two or three are better than five or six. Balance the drive for a small team against pragmatic concerns. If you absolutely have to add this person or that person make sure you think about why. Often in our organizations we include people because “It’s their area of responsibility.” Don’t let the organizational chart dictate the participants.

It might be prudent to visit organizational stakeholders before assembling your team and explain to them what you are trying to accomplish and why you are keeping the team small. Ask them for freedom to keep the team small and if you run into flack, appeal to upper management. If you are upper management, be cruel. Steve Jobs has often been called, “The dictator with good design taste,” because he refused to let engineers set design. Think about it, how many engineers do you know that ooze design and fashion sense? Jobs knows that in order to make something as bland as a computer look sexy he must tell people what to do or they will design something bland. Insist on some form of dictatorship when it comes to the project and get assurances that people will appropriately handle concerns by coming to you with them.

Determine which people should be at the table based on their ability to contribute creatively while being pragmatic. For example, in our case we knew we would be hiring the videographers so we didn’t need that person in the idea-generation stage. On the other hand, we needed people who really understood the core values of our organization. Without them in place we would never have gotten the main message across.

Don’t hesitate to look in unusual places for the right people. I think youth is important. Studies on creativity show that there are two archetypes of creativity. One is the “youthful burst” and the other is “older, consistent.” Each is very different and it might be good to combine the two (see “Old Masters and Young Geniuses by Galenson and Jensen). The other type of person to have participate in the project is so important that I give its own treatment.

3. Make sure your audience is taken into account

We do not have an outsider’s perspective of ourselves. Unless the creativity you are producing is for your own consumption only (not likely) you have better understand this and plan for it.

Remember those videographers we were hiring? Well, they knew nothing about our work. As they traveled with our team, met our staff worldwide, and began to see the heart of our organization something special happened. They got it. They learned about us, they understood. Because they started out much like our audience, they were able to not only convey the core values of our movement, but they saw it through the eyes of somebody not aware of what we do.

Even more importantly, they then communicated that conversion process, from somebody who didn’t know about us to somebody who did, into the film. This was the project’s objective.

Your eyeballs stay in your head. Think about your audience and know that you will never see things as they do. The only way I know to fully capture your audience’s perspective is to give them way to influence and participate in the creative process. Granted, there are a handful of highly talented and gifted artists who easily transcend their own perspective and can magically create art that communicates to our hearts. I am not one of them. Are you? If not, let your audience perform this task for you.

4. Be a dictator on dates and budget

People that are create types (I call them “artsey-fartsey”) don’t like accountability. It rubs them the wrong way. They cannot understand why one more month, another injection of cash, a rewrite of the script, or other means of delay can’t be extended to them. The only way to keep them in production mode is to give hard dates and stick to them.

Creative people like to be immersed in the work. My experience is that they also are fearful of committing themselves to a creative path. “If I do this, I can’t do that… oh, what do I do?” They struggle with making a decision. Typically, managers are good at making decisions. Don’t do it. Force the creative team to decide by setting a firm deadline with consequences for not performing. This helps them, even though they might feel rushed.

Sometimes, the only way they will fully focus is to know that without a period of intense effort required to finish on time. I have seen many times that money (or really, the lack of it) is often as good a motivator for completing a project as a deadline. The finish line becomes much more attractive when somebody knows that they will not be paid for additional hours.

5. Be a peace loving hippie on freedom

If the team decides that they best way to accomplish their task is to run barefoot and naked through fields of flowers for three days in order to develop inspiration… well, do you really care? Let them work it out. Give them a long leash and a reasonable timeline and budget to finish the work and stay out of the way.

If you are participating on the creative team (I usually do) and you are in a position of authority you must be careful not to squelch freedom. We are always aware of “polity” in relationships (polity refers to the power structures that govern our interactions). As an organizational or positional leader each word you say is filtered through that paradigm. A creative suggestion may be perceived as a complete change in direction. Set the ground rules for your team early on that they are free to say whatever needs to be said.

One temptation you will face is to ask review partially completed work. If that is required, then you need to communicate that upfront as it will become, in a sense, a deadline for the team. Check your motives, though. If the reason for you asking is so that you can re-direct the team into a different path, you will be managing them.

6. Pay attention to how the critics respond

I once read an article (I have long since forgotten the source) that talked about how athletes are usually remembered for the “one big moment” that they had in their career. If you threw the pass that saved the game or struck out in ninth inning with the bases loaded to lose, that one moment is very important in defining who you are. Artists are not that different. I have a friend who has was awarded a Grammy. That one aware has fueled a great deal of his career. When one creates art, they are putting something out there for the whole world to see and to judge. A single, successful project can have significant effects on a creative person.

When creativity is purposefully concentrated into a single team, they should be recognized for this contribution. There are many types of rewards, but for the artist, the critic wields a mighty influence. Share the love.

On the other hand, the reverse may not be true. Artistic endeavor needs to be protected. I have seen a number of well-done projects produce criticism that is very deflating to the creative people involved. No project within an organization is free of critique. However, when it’s done, and the DVD’s have been pressed, or the publication printed, or the event is over, move on.

I do like to keep my own notes on critiques of creative projects. I do this because I know that we will probably be doing yet another project and these can be helpful. In the video project I have mentioned we did make some mistakes. The sound quality could be better, the material is not suitable for Internet-based sharing, and it lacks a story line. In spite of all of this, I think this is among the best organizationally-focused material I have ever seen. Why deflate the team that created it? It won’t change what we have produced.


Creativity will become an increasingly important part of organizational survival. We used to live in an information society. I believe we are moving into becoming a creativity society. Organizational success will depend on a great deal on your ability to come up with new ideas or ways to better communicate and implement old ideas. What used to be considered creative is now a commodity.

I will never forget the fun it was to show the DVD of our creative team’s work to people who knew nothing of our work. The first question was usually, “Who made this DVD?” and I as so proud to say that we did it. One of our care values highlighted in this series is “Innovation and Flexibility.” We were able to not just say it, but to show it.

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