Managing teams is tough enough. But when you’re managing teams of people who need to be highly creative to fulfill their job functions, a new level of complexity is added, says Michael D. Mumford, PhD. He is a professor and director of the Center for Applied Social Research at the University of Oklahoma and author of Pathways to Outstanding Leadership: A Comparative Analysis of Charismatic, Ideological, and Pragmatic Leaders.
Effectively managing creative teams requires the good skills necessary to manage most teams, but also requires technical expertise and an understanding of the creative employees’ work—and the culture necessary to foster it best. "If they perceive risks in their environment, people will refuse to be creative," he says.
Are you faced with managing a creative team? Keep these six tips in mind.
Peer support and management support for creative ideas is important, Mumford says. While creative people are not, by and large, delicate flowers—rejection usually comes with the territory—if they feel that they’re not being managed by someone who’s looking out for their best interests, they often won’t do their best work. Mumford says that providing professionally challenging and intellectually stimulating work is also essential for creative teams.
"Feeling safe does not mean that the leader is necessarily nice," he says. "It is respecting the ideas and the competence of the person as a creator."
The best creative leaders are technically quite good themselves, Mumford says. If the idea or work is bad or off the mark, they have enough experience to evaluate it and either reject it or fix it. They are able to identify weaknesses both in the work and on the team and either deal with them or compensate for them, he says. They inspire trust because the creative people on their teams know that they make the work better.
When you’re asking creative people to come up with solutions or ideas, you need to give them the time to do so, says Karen L. Mallia, associate professor of advertising at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Jamming up the schedule with back-to-back meetings isn’t giving them time or space to do their best work, she says.
"Creative people need a venue for quiet thinking. That’s often not permissible in an [open-floor] office," she says. And working remotely isn’t always possible when you need time to collaborate with peers. Therefore, it’s important that managers be good at helping team members strike that balance for their best performance.
It’s a common perception that creatives work best in a totally unfettered environment, Mallia says. Give them a task and let them have at it, without constraints or direction. The reality is much different, she says. Creative people typically work best when they have clear direction and understanding of the goals, Mallia says. To just set them loose is too overwhelming. She quotes former Ogilvy Creative Director Norman Barry: "Give me the freedom of a tight strategy." So, providing clear direction, creative briefs, and specific feedback helps improve the work and avoid frustrated team members.
Creativity is stoked when new ideas and influences are present. And while human nature typically "drives us to like the like," Mallia says that diversity within teams is an important component of creative work. Strong creative leaders seek out people who are different from each other and are able to build enough trust and credibility to unite them, she says. While people typically think of gender, race, ethnicity, and age as some of the primary areas of diversity focus, Mallia says it also extends to life experiences and skill sets, which can add breadth to the collective team’s understanding.
In addition to the day-to-day skills necessary to manage the team, you also need to be able to manage up and laterally. You have to sell the creative program to either investors or the organization. It’s not just selling it to get resources, you also have to sell the program to other departments and stakeholders to get their buy-in and support, Mumford says.
"If you’re building, let’s say, a driverless car, and you don’t get manufacturing and IT involved, it’s toast. That leads to mistakes. Frequently, creative leaders don’t try to sell their projects. They think the idea will sell itself," Mumford says. That leaves too much margin for error. If you don’t sell your team’s ideas to the organizational entities they need to succeed, you’re undermining your group’s work.