Why Focusing On The Bacon Is Killing Your Creative Department

The creative side projects will always be more fun, but getting work done requires a certain amount of balance. Here's how to make time for both the bacon and the lettuce.

Whenever I eat a Cobb salad, I invariably wind up sifting through the lettuce to get to the bacon pieces first. It always makes for a delicious first few bites, but soon I'm left listlessly staring down a pile of boring, bacon-less lettuce.

I watch a lot of creative teams fall victim to a similarly shortsighted approach when presented with a lot of project requests. They always seem to gravitate toward pet projects that, like the bacon pieces, consume their time and energy. Assignments that are less gratifying creatively—the iceberg lettuce—just get bumped down the to-do list.

I can't afford to let my project queue go the way of my Cobb salads. To keep both our clients and our creatives happy, I have to help my team consistently balance efficient execution with artistic expression across the board. Here are five best practices I've collected over the years for keeping creative pros engaged in all their projects—not just the bacon bits.

1. Teach constrained creativity.

One of the credos Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter and Square, lives by is, "constraint inspires creativity." You can see that in the condensed, 140-character world of Twitter he created as well as the minimalist design of Square’s commerce solutions. We think of creativity as a concept without boundaries or "boxes," but often it is defined by parameters. When I assign my creative department to design an advertising campaign for airport billboards, I’m challenging them to work within "constraints." Limitations have the potential to bring out – not stifle – creativity.

2. Provide crystal-clear priorities and expectations.

Management guru Stephen Covey is the author of the sage advice "don't prioritize what’s on your schedule, schedule your priorities." Because pet projects are always more fun, creatives tend to spend too much time on tasks that are less important. Managing schedules, budgets and projects is a necessary evil, but providing your team with clearly defined priorities and expectations can minimize the time spent outside of the creative process.

3. Allow time to be inspired.

Most people have little or no time for research and reflection at work. Many creative people are inspired by reading about the creative pursuits of others, so carve out time during the workday for them to catch up on the latest trends. This not only recharges their batteries but also helps them generate ideas for new ways to approach projects. Balancing their work life can help them better bring your vision to life.

4. Don’t worry about weaknesses.

Focus less on shoring up someone’s weaknesses and more on helping them become a rockstar at their strengths. The hard truth is that if you just work on your weaknesses and don’t leverage your strengths, you’re mediocre at everything. I can’t rely on average employees. I need people who are brilliant, exceptional and outstanding. Embrace employees for what they are instead of expending effort to make them become something they’re not.

5. Tame disorganized workflow.

Process and creativity can and should co-exist. The assumption is that creative people hate operating under a rigid structure. In reality, however, what creatives hate more than anything are the fallouts from broken workflows: delays due to lack of approvals, inappropriate feedback too late in the game, or having the wrong stakeholders reviewing work (e.g., the CFO weighing in on color choices). Give your team freedom to dictate an optimal creative workflow and hold them to it. When there is a proper sequence of work, your team can nail down exactly who needs to be involved (and when).

Bryan Nielson is the chief marketing officer at AtTask, a Utah-based provider of enterprise work management solutions. He has spent more than 15 years in marketing and IT.

[Image: Flickr user R. Nial Bradshaw]

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