The Care and Feeding of the Creative Class

Secrets for fielding teams that are passionate, playful, and high performance.

If you’re managing a throng of data-entry processors, turn the page. This isn’t for you. Are we creatives alone now? Good. Running a creative team, though, can be the leadership equivalent of being Siegfried and Roy. Allow too much freedom, and you risk chaos. Apply too heavy a hand, and you court insurrection. Still, if handled deftly, leading a creative shop can be the most fun a manager can have and still call it work.


We talked to managers from three creative enterprises — a design firm, a branding consultancy, and a team of computer programmers — and got their secrets for fielding teams that are passionate, playful, and high performance.

1. Recruit for diversity, hire for philosophy

Leading a successful group starts with hiring the right people. If creativity is all about seeing things differently, says Bob Brunner, a partner at the San Francisco office of the design studio Pentagram (projects have included the stowaway keyboard for PDAs and Callaway’s golf-ball packaging), then assembling a group of people who have a mix of nationalities and cultures can spark ideas and generate energy. But Brunner says that polyglot ferment can turn toxic if workers aren’t on the same page philosophically. “In hiring, it’s important to learn what they really believe about design and what drives their work,” he says. “Make sure it’s in alignment with where you want to go.”

2. Rehab the neighborhood

Even if you’re working in a buttoned-up corporate environment, find a way to make the creative workers’ space appealing. This is the wrong place to enforce rigid, bureaucratic aesthetic standards unless you want rigid, bureaucratic products. Light, space, wall art, and goofy toys are critical to the alchemy of the creative process. When Brunner came to Apple in 1989, the design team was stuck in cubicles (just like everybody else) in the corner of the engineering building. He immediately hustled his group to another building where they took standard-issue Apple furniture and rearranged it in a slightly off-kilter pattern. Everything was at 45-degree angles, and half the partitions were left out. “It set up the idea that there are different ways to do things,” Brunner says.


“Creativity is not like an assembly line,” says Simon Williams, CEO of the Sterling Group. “It’s very stop-start. These are human machines, and they break down, get angry, get drunk.”

3. Within limits, let them make the rules

The best managers of creatives are those folks who have been creatives themselves. (All of the people here are doers and not just managers. Brunner, for example, designed the original Apple PowerBook and Nike’s Typhoon watch.) They understand that the creative process is not linear and that treating creative employees like workers in a widget factory may backfire. “Creativity is not like an assembly line,” says Simon Williams, CEO and president of the New York-based brand-strategy firm the Sterling Group. “It’s very stop-start. Managers must realize these are human machines, and they break down, get angry, get drunk.” To address this issue, Avery Pennarun, chief scientist at the Canadian software company Net Integration Technologies and overseer of 45 developers, lets his team help set their deadlines. The person who’s best able to decide how long something is going to take, he reasons, is the person who has to do it. “A businessperson couldn’t just say, ‘Do it in a weekend.’ They’ll respond, ‘You’re an idiot.’ ” But, as Brunner notes, that goes only so far, and you ultimately have to lay down the law. He tells his people, “If you want to have the ability to do cool things, you also have to have the ability to deliver.”

4. Keep their eyes on the prize

Because even the most innovative product is generally 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, getting creatives to focus on the perspiration after the inspiration is done is often the hardest part. “Programmers love to figure out how to solve problems,” Pennarun says. “But once they’ve done the hard part, they get bored and want to move on to something else.” That meant the department was littered with projects suffering from designus interruptus — sparks of genius that never reached fruition.

After a failed experiment of dividing the team into two groups — creators and finishers — Pennarun laid down a new rule: Everybody was responsible for getting his project to the finish line. Now each programmer gets to do some of the fun stuff but also has to slog through the boring stuff that’s part of every project.


5. Feed their heads

Creatives can be brilliant at what they do best — and remarkably naive about the world outside their bailiwick. At Sterling, Williams makes a point of informing his team about the context in which their business lives. Every quarter he talks to them about what’s happening in the economy, what’s doing in the marketing-services sector, and what trends are roiling the advertising industry. “The more we can connect them to the real world, the more they’re likely to understand some of the decisions that clients make,” he says. He also arranges for regular applications of inspiration: outside speakers, art and photo exhibits, and social events. “Not an hour-and-a-half dreary lecture,” he cautions. “Half an hour. Then, ‘Have a drink!’ “

6. Teach them a new language

Working within a context can also help creatives better sell their ideas. “You can’t go into a business meeting and just say, ‘Here’s my thing. It’s, like, totally cool,’ and expect it to work,” says Brunner. Communication is a skill that few young designers know or appreciate, yet it’s the one that can determine whether their designs are accepted or rejected. He spends fully half his creative time writing. So he teaches his staff to be fluent enough in the language of business to be advocates for their designs. “They need to be able to say, ‘Here’s the business problem, here’s what we were trying to achieve, here’s the solution.’ “

7. Allow time for blue-sky thinking

While it’s important to keep creatives focused on the task at hand, allowing them time to take creative leaps can lead to big rewards. At Net Integration Technologies, Pennarun has instituted “nondirectional Fridays” to let his programmers work on projects that aren’t technically part of their jobs. A voice-over-Internet-protocol server grew out of such a project. Too much of a focus on short deadlines can short-circuit true creativity, Brunner says. “When pressed for time, you do things you know will work because you don’t have the opportunity for trial and error.” To counteract that creativity-sapping grind, Brunner makes sure his team is also running parallel projects that are more investigations than deliverable projects. Later on, they might fold the results of those experiments into other projects.


8. Protect your team from creativity killers

The essential difference between creative workers and everybody else is that their work product is a personal expression of who they are. As a result, they’re more emotionally exposed than other workers and more vulnerable to criticism. “You’re really putting yourself out there,” says Williams. While a certain amount of rejection is inevitable, Williams says it’s important to explain why some ideas don’t pass muster. Otherwise, he says, creatives have no understanding of where they went off the rails — and no way to improve. “I’ve watched their fragile hearts die when a client says, ‘This is just crap,’ ” he says. Managers can minimize failure by being very specific about a project’s objectives. “Giving boundaries to creatives is not restrictive,” Williams says. “It’s directive.”

9. Add liberal doses of fun

Being creative on demand is hard work. It can be intellectually taxing and emotionally exhausting. It can ruin your sleep and tie your stomach in knots. Still, any creative worth his iPod will tell you the payoff is worth the price. Like third-grade teachers everywhere, smart leaders know the value of recess in working off some of that nervous energy. They know the Nerf ball is as essential to the office as a fax, that pizza, applied correctly, goes a long way toward solving gnarly creative problems, and that when inspiration is short, team paintball may be the answer. Brunner once looked on like an indulgent pledge master as his team spent weeks bombarding one another with flying rubber rings. “Fostering an environment where fun isn’t viewed as goofing off is absolutely critical,” he says. The product still got built.


About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.


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