This, dear friends, is a blog post about a blog post. My reactions to the ideas of another, and my arguments and opinions as to how the author is wrong, and needs to be corrected. I understand that the internet is full of critics criticising each other, but there are times when one is left with no choice but to leap into the fray and start throwing roundhouse punches.
Recently, an article entitled Seven Rules for Managing Creatives* appeared on the Harvard Business Review blog in which the author, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes a well-meaning but ultimately misguided manual for managers on how they can cope with creatives in their organisations. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Dr. Tomas is a psychologist and has been seen in the media, including on Channel4 during the short-lived Big Brother On The Couch series. There, at least, his insights were quite fascinating and astute, but it seems that the industrial psychology of creative professionals (the subject of my own forthcoming PhD studies — date unknown) hasn’t quite gone as mainstream.
Anyway, let’s get to it. Here, I will feature Dr. Tomas’s article, and insert my commentary stating why I think he’s a bit short-sighted, and more importantly, what well-intentioned managers can actually do to get the most out of their design pros. The article will appear in block quotes, and my commentary in normal text.
Moody, erratic, eccentric, and arrogant? Perhaps — but you can’t just get rid of them…
Let me stop you right there. If you are a manager and you have someone — anyone — in your organisation who is moody, erratic, eccentric, and arrogant, they need to go. (ok, maybe not eccentric because aren’t we all?) Would you want your receptionist to be erratic? Would you want your CEO to be moody? How about an arrogant janitor? Bosses, you are allowed to get rid of people who don’t perform or who bring negativity and drama to your office.
…In fact, unless you learn to get the best out of your creative employees, you will sooner or later end up filing for bankruptcy. Conversely, if you just hire and promote people who are friendly and easy to manage, your firm will be mediocre at best. Suppressed creativity is a malign organizational tumour. Although every organization claims to care about innovation, very few are willing to do what it takes to keep their creative people happy, or at least, productive. So what are the keys to engaging and retaining creative employees?
Ok, that paragraph is basically just rambling.
1. Spoil them and let them fail: Like parents who celebrate their children’s mess: show your creatives unconditional support and encourage them to do the absurd and fail. Innovation comes from uncertainty, risk, and experimentation — if you know it will work, it isn’t creative. Creative people are the natural experimenters, so let them try and test and play. Of course, there are costs associated with experimentation — but these are lower than the cost of NOT innovating.
To the essence here, I actually agree, but it’s clumsily worded. In my opinion, innovative, bold, daring work — whether it be design, writing, even planning and strategy, takes some experimenting. No one, even a seasoned pro, can create on-demand and at the same time come up with something truly unique. This means you as a manager have to build in some planning, research, and concept time into a project. Allow for multiple concepts to be explored and presented. Discuss and iterate on a few ideas before giving the green light to one. Understand that in order to create something new and useful (and profitable), most of what creative professionals work on will end up on the cutting room floor. Call this failure, call it experimentation, call it part of the process. In my opinion it’s not spoiling, it’s the nature of creative work.
2. Surround them by semi-boring people: The worst thing you can do to a creative employee is to force them to work with someone like them — they would compete for ideas, brainstorm eternally, or simply ignore each other. That said, you cannot surround creatives with really boring or conventional people — they would not understand them, and fall out. In line with this, recent research indicates that teams made up of diverse members who are open to taking each others’ perspective perform most creatively.
The solution, then, is to support your creatives with colleagues who are too conventional to challenge their ideas, but unconventional enough to collaborate with them. These colleagues will need to pay attention to details, mundane executional processes, and do the dirty work: Messi needs Busquets and Puyol; Ronaldo needs Alonso and Ramos.
First, I’m not actually sure what a semi-boring person is. Someone who is boring to you might be awesome to me. I guess there’s a middle ground. But more importantly, this remark seems the unfortunate effect of the author never having experienced the benefit of a truly productive partnership with other creatives. Much like math class in school, an implied, mostly-harmless sense of competition with our peers makes us all better. It pushes us, ever so slightly, to do better work. A rising tide floats all boats.
Teaming up with other creatives, especially those in complementary disciplines (copywriter/art director, interface designer/programmer, speech writer/politician, etc. etc.) can be tremendously productive. Sadly, there is no magic formula to creative success. Two people, no matter how much they excel as individuals, might not get along. Test partnerships and adjust the relationships as needed, rather than force two people to work together.
3. Only involve them in meaningful work: Natural innovators tend to have more vision, research I’ve done indicates. They see the bigger picture and are able to understand why things matter (even if they cannot explain it). The downside to this is that they simply won’t engage in meaningless work. This all-or-nothing approach to work mirrors the bipolar temperament of creative artists, who perform well only when inspired — and inspiration is fueled by meaning. This rule can also be applied to other employees: everyone is more creative when driven by their genuine interests and a hungry mind.
As novelist John Irving said, “the reason I can work so hard at my writing is that it’s not work for me”. At the same time, in any organization there will be employees who are less interested in, well, doing interesting work; they are satisfied with simply clocking in and out, and are incentivized by external rewards. Companies should ensure that trivial or meaningless work is assigned to these employees.
A true creative professional — that is, someone who understands commerce and the nature of day-to-day work life — knows that the bulk of any project is not terribly sexy. You easily could brainstorm and come up with some ideas in an afternoon, only to spend the next three months fleshing them out and building a prototype. Finalising a design or product is persnickety work — it makes for terribly dull television, and it rarely gets written about. Everyone who is vaguely artistic wants to be doing something else — something more exciting — but the real pros who will add value to your business know how to sink into a productive working rhythm and deliver the goods. Need a metaphor? Your team will eat lots of salad, but there should also be dessert. Or to put it another way: don’t hire moody artists assholes. Hire creative professionals.
4. Don’t pressure them: Creativity is usually enhanced by giving people more freedom and flexibility at work. If you like structure, order and predictability, you are probably not creative. However, we are all more likely to perform more creatively in spontaneous, unpredictable circumstances — because we cannot rely on our habits. Don’t constrain your creative employees; don’t force them to follow processes or structures. Let them work remotely and outside normal hours; don’t ask where they are, what they are doing or how they do it. This is the secret to managing Don Draper, and why he never went to work for a bigger competitor. This is also why so many top athletes fail to make the transition from a small to a big team, and why business founders are usually unhappy to remain in charge of their ventures once they are acquired by a bigger company.
There’s a lot wrapped up in this one, and it isn’t entirely wrong. True, creative pros aren’t factory workers. A rigid, unforgiving system is not the best environment for creative work because it doesn’t allow for individual thinking or on-the-fly adjustments to the traditional workflows. This goes double for anyone entrepreneurial, who is eager to test and employ his own big-picture ideas about work and business. However, no successful studio can function without some structure. You need workflows and processes and systems that make sense for that type of work. You can’t run an ad agency like a bank. A fashion house is not an industrial farm. You can’t produce the next great novel masquerading as IRS agent. Instead of letting your creative/design team run wild, investigate the sorts of systems that encourage productivity among teams. How can we bring out the best in one another? How can be keep our client needs front and center? How do we monitor budget and time constraints? Not by letting the lunatics run the asylum, that’s for sure.
Note, this is basically what I’m going to write about next, so stay tuned
5. Pay them poorly, Don’t overpay them: There is a longstanding debate about the relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Over the past two decades, psychologists have provided compelling evidence for the so-called “over-justification” effect, namely the process whereby higher external rewards impair performance by depressing a person’s genuine or intrinsic interest. Most notably, two large-scale meta-analyses reported that, when tasks are inherently meaningful (and creative tasks are certainly in this condition), external rewards diminish engagement. This is true in both adults and children, especially when people are rewarded merely for performing a task. However, providing positive feedback (praises) does not harm intrinsic motivation, so long as the feedback is perceived as genuine. [Editor’s note: This is clearly a controversial point; Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic has expanded on it in his new article, “Does Money Really Affect Motivation? A Review of the Research.” In line with his comments in the thread below, we’ve also updated the header on this section to be more accurate.]
The moral of the story? The more you pay people to do what they love, the less they will love it. In the words of Czikszentmihalyi, “the most important quality, the one that is most consistently present in all creative individuals, is the ability to enjoy the process of creation for its own sake.” More importantly, people with a talent for innovation are not driven by money. Data from our research archive, which includes over 50,000 managers from 20 different countries, indicates quite clearly that the more imaginative and inquisitive people are, the more they are driven by recognition and sheer scientific curiosity rather than commercial needs.
I don’t buy the psychobabble here. If you want top performers in your organization, you need to pay them accordingly. Professionals or any sort known their market and what constitutes a competitive salary. If they bring value to your company and clients, they earn their worth every day. A better strategy is to offer a fair, if not competitive pay package, and then hold your people accountable. Make them prove their worth. Force them to track their productivity and effect on your business. Ask them to show how they bring value every day to you and your clients. If they indeed have, and they’ve made a convincing argument based in logic and facts, then they deserve even more pay. Isn’t that how it works in every other profession?
6. Surprise them: Few things are as aggravating to creatives as boredom. Indeed, creative people are prewired to seek constant change, even when it’s counterproductive. They take a different route to work every day, even if it gets them lost, and never repeat an order at a restaurant, even if they really liked it. Creativity is linked to higher tolerance of ambiguity. Creatives love complexity and enjoy making simple things complex rather than vice-versa. Instead of looking for the answer to a problem, they prefer to find a million answers or a million problems. It is therefore essential that you keep surprising your creative employees; failing that, you should at least let them create enough chaos to make their own lives less predictable.
I agree that creatives, perhaps moreso than other members of the workforce, desire variety and new challenges. But we really don’t like being blind-sided or surprised while trying to take care of business. Like everyone else, we are more productive in a creative rhythm, a workflow and work environment that we can tweak and reconfigure over time, not a chaotic, unpredictable minefield of surprises. Bosses, help your creatives think of new challenges and new projects which can help your organisation stand out. Very few of them will say “no thanks.”
7. Make them feel important: As T.S. Eliot noted, “most of the trouble in this world is caused by people wanting to be important”. And the reason is that others fail to recognize them. Fairness is not treating everyone the same, but like they deserve. Every organization has high and low potential employees, but only competent managers can identify them. If you fail to recognize your employees’ creative potential, they will go somewhere where they feel more valued.
This actually has nothing to do with design or creative professions. If you are a manager, you’ve got to treat your people well. Celebrate the little victories, thank them for doing the daily grind, show appreciation continually, in small increments, rather than some grand gesture which can be construed as insincere. In my experience, it’s the ego of the person, not the profession, that makes one desire import. Again, the real professionals — the ones you want to hire — are humble. They will tip their hats to the accountants and office managers and understand that these folks are just as important as anyone who calls himself creative.
A final caveat: even when you are able to manage your creative employees, it does not mean that you should let them manage others. In fact, natural innovators are rarely gifted with leadership skills. There is a profile for good leaders, and a profile for creative people — and they are rather different. Steve Jobs had better relationships with gadgets than people, and most Google engineers are utterly disinterested in management. One of the reasons for the rapid plateau of start-ups is that their founders tend to remain in charge. They should learn from Mark Zuckerberg who brought in Sheryl Sandberg to make up for his own leadership deficits. Research confirms the stereotypical view that corporate innovators — intrapreneurs — exhibit many of the psychopathic characteristics that prevent them from being effective leaders: they are rebellious, anti-social, self-centered and often too low in empathy to care about the welfare of others. But manage them well, and their inventions will delight us all.
I’m so fucking sick of hearing about Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs. These men, and the companies they built, are super-rare exceptions on so many levels it’s almost not worth mentioning them at all. There is no way to replicate their success. I agree that not all creatives are managers, and I will assert that the same is true for all professions! In fact, not everyone with a management job title is a natural leader or gifted boss. An MBA does not automatically make people like you and rally behind you. Neither does a masterful command of fonts or fabrics.
Here we actually have the tip of a large iceberg about creatives, and when, if ever, they should step back from their core creating duties and become teachers, bosses, or business owners. To make it extremely brief, some people have big dreams of leading a team, and some are content being a practitioner and doing the work themselves. There isn’t necessarily a rule to live by. A bold move for you, business owner, is to ask your creative professionals what their aspirations are. It isn’t automatically a bad thing for a young designer to reply “I want to be a freelancer in a year or two” or for a fashion designer to say “I’d like to run my own label.” If anything, this means that they will bust their ass to learn as much as possible in a hurry. It also means you can concentrate on other people who are more long-term, who may be interested in becoming your future partner, rather than your competition. The bigger focus of your day should be how to get the most out of your team and be a good boss, rather than who will or won’t suck when they are promoted to manage the department. Ideally, the natural leader will emerge, solving the problem for you.
The article is now concluded, but I will add a quick link. Everyone — both creative worker and the bosses who manage them — should read Paul Graham’s remarks on Maker Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. This, I feel, is at the heart of most creator-boss tensions. The essence is this: Managers have the ability to work in small increments, say, 20 minutes at a time. They take quick meetings, write an email or notes, make phone calls, and continue to do so throughout the day. Creators, on the other hand, need extended blocks of time to sink their teeth into a project. Whether it be programming, writing, design, drafting, or anything else, a maker needs a good 3 or 4 hour block to slip into the zone and produce something meaningful. So, dear business owner, please resist the urge to interrupt, to “check in” or “touch base”, and to otherwise force your creatives to work on your stop-and-go schedule.
What are your opinions about these 7 points, or about Maker Schedule vs. Managers’s Schedule? When have you had an excellent boss or a disastrous one? Share in comments below.
In part II, I will discuss tools for staying organised and the problems of a day-to-day design department [as it relates to my current job.]
* The post has since been renamed “Seven Rules for Managing Creative-But-Difficult People”, vaguely admitting that not all Creatives are difficult. Whatever.