UK: Best Practice - Don't fear the tantrum - how to get the best from creative staff.

UK: Best Practice - Don't fear the tantrum - how to get the best from creative staff. - Creative people may not be as uncontrollable and unpredictable as you think - but don't try to 'manage' them.

by Winston Fletcher.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Creative people may not be as uncontrollable and unpredictable as you think - but don't try to 'manage' them.

Every world leader, thinker and management guru agrees that, for post-industrial economies like Britain whose key resource is human capital, creativity is the name of the future game. In science and technology that goes without saying. But a large number of industries literally sell creativity: creativity is their 'product'. These are industries in which Britain often excels - advertising, architecture, computer software, design, entertainment, fashion, films, music, books, newspapers, journals, radio and television.

Together they employ hundreds of thousands of people and contribute massively both to exports and to our national output.

In all these industries the principle raw material is people: highly creative, highly talented people. There is often no production line or manufacturing process - and even when there is, the manufacturing process is largely secondary to the creative product. It is the content, the creative software, that counts. Yet surprisingly little attention has been paid to the question of managing highly creative people - to the 'exploitation of creative minds' as Tony Blair has put it. Is there, then, anything special about their management? We must ask ourselves three questions: first, are highly creative people truly different, or is it just a pose? If they are different, how are they different? Second, how can creative people be motivated to produce their best work? Third, how can creative people be focused and controlled? Let's consider each in turn.

On the first question - if you start any discussion about the nature of creative people you can safely bet a Shakespeare first folio to a Jeffrey Archer paperback that within 10 minutes someone will mention Vincent van Gogh or Paul Gaugin, or both. Why? Because they epitomise our image of typical creative people. And they epitomise creative people's image of themselves. But they are not typical. Indeed they are untypical. How many creative people can you think of who have dashed off to the South Seas or cut off their ears. The truth is that most creative people live relatively conventional lives, but don't like to admit it - even to themselves.

And nowadays - it wasn't always so - most human beings like to feel they are creative. To admit you are uncreative is to admit that you are a tedious, predictable dullard. To be creative, in contrast, is to be lively, unpredictable and life-enhancing. So who would willingly admit to being uncreative?

But if we are all creative, how can Leonardo's doodlings be differentiated from those of someone else? To insist all human beings are creative is as pointless as insisting that all human beings can bat a ball over a net. Indeed they can, but few are good enough to play at Wimbledon.

When most people try to create television commercials, design clothes, write books, or direct their own movies the results are humdrum. The ability to do them exceedingly well is as rare as the ability to play brilliant tennis. So creative people are, literally, unusual. They are not quite like the rest of us. Their driving force, Sigmund Freud believed, is the desire for fame, for public recognition. (That is why awards are so important to them, and should not be despised.) Similarly, leading psychologist Anthony Storr has argued that creative people are unique in being more concerned with their output than with themselves: they desperately want others to acclaim their work, but care little whether they themselves are liked or disliked. That, like Freud's thesis, is perhaps too simplistic.

But both highlight recognisable aspects of creative people's personality.

In fact many psychological studies have revealed art students to be different from other students. But that does not mean they necessarily have wild, volatile, uncontrollable personalities. They are generally more socially aloof, introspective, self-sufficient, stubborn, radical, experimental and non-conformist than students in other disciplines. However the differences are never vast. Though real and measurable, the differences are marginal.

In other words, and on average, creative people are different from the rest of us - but not very different. Because creative people are not that different from others, the difficulties involved in managing them are similar to the difficulties involved in managing all human beings - but writ larger.

Second, can creative people be motivated? Because creative people are basically similar to other people, they can generally be motivated in similar ways - similar, but more extreme. However it is important to dismiss up-front the role of money as a motivator of creativity. That isn't to say creative people aren't interested in money: far from it. They will fight for every penny they can get. But once a sum has been agreed, it becomes irrelevant. They will not consciously do better if they are paid more, nor worse if they are paid less. That isn't the way their commitment works.

Rather, they must believe the manager - whatever his or her title - is committed to excellence. Because good creative people are intensely concerned about their output, as Storr has pointed out, they tend to be perfectionists.

Most managers, who tend by nature to be pragmatic, find such creative perfectionism difficult to handle. And it is here that the image of the volatile, uncontrollable personality surfaces. The truth is that this image suits both the creative people and the managers, very well. It provides the creative people with a perfect excuse for unyielding behaviour ('Don't argue with me. I'm a wild, uncontrollable person'). And it provides managers with an equally perfect excuse for failing ('How can they be managed? They're wild, uncontrollable people').

But as we have seen they are not, in general, wild, uncontrollable people. They are passionate in their pursuit of their vision of perfection - but that is quite a different thing. Consciously or unconsciously, creative people know creativity is difficult. To bring into existence something that has never before existed demands effort, usually intense effort. So creative people know instinctively that tasks which are easy are unlikely to demand much creativity. Equally, they know that tasks that are challenging will force them to squeeze every ounce of creativity out of themselves. To convince them that they, too, are committed to perfectionism, managers must set them tough challenges.

This brings us to the third question: How can creative people be focused and controlled? The answer to this question lies in 'the brief' - that vital bridge between motivation and control. That is why - excluding the act of creation itself - the brief is the most important part of the creative process. The brief must simultaneously motivate and inspire, focus and control. It is worth considering why the instructions given to creative people - be they architects, writers, photographers or designers - is almost always called a brief, rather than an order or even an instruction.

In the army, and in factories, people are given orders; but barristers are given briefs.

There are two essential differences. First, an order is given by a superior to an inferior; a brief is given to someone of (at least) equal status - it is as much a request as an order. But second, and more importantly, a brief is an instruction which has an objective ('Win the case') but which allows the recipient to determine the method and manner by which that objective is to be achieved. It is inherent in the nature of a brief that the briefer does not know how the objective will be achieved.

So the brief must clearly set the objectives. And to motivate the recipient it must be inspirational, it must set a tough challenge. But that does not mean it should be couched in wishy-washy inspirational terms. From the creative person's point of view stupendously creative and brilliant ideas are always required: that should be taken for granted.

Far from being wishy-washy, the more specific a brief can be, the better.

Not only the objective, but also the constraints, should be defined precisely.

Some managers try to inspire creativity by omitting 'negative' information from the brief. ('You just free-wheel, blue-sky, and we'll sort things out later.') They fear that if they reveal the restraints to free-wheeling creativity, the brief will fail to inspire. Maybe, maybe not. But it is always better for creative people to know all the thorny problems in advance, rather than for the thorns to draw blood later. The immutable rule about problems is: don't hide them, provide them. Nothing is more destructive of creativity than for new snags to arise as a job progresses.

Inevitably the two constraints which most fetter creativity are cost and time. Again, many managers either avoid mentioning them at the briefing stage or worse still, they lie. They may lie by providing too little time and too small a budget, because they know - nudge, wink - that creative people always take too long and overspend. Or they may lie by promising too much time and money, intending to rein in the creative people later.

Either route is mis-guided, because the manager will have a continuing relationship with the creative people. And creative people aren't stupid. They quickly get to know people who constantly mislead them - and quickly get to distrust them.

So specify all constraints, as truthfully as possible, from the start.

But because they know many managers lie to them, and because their striving for perfection will, inevitably, sometimes drive them to take too long and spend too much, most creative people need to be constantly shepherded while a job is in progress. Always remember, however, that a good shepherd stays behind his flock, allowing them to believe they are leading him on, without harrying them or making them nervous - except when they stray far too far afield.

Finally, there is a wealth of difference between creativity and talent.

Creativity is now so fashionable the importance of talent has been greatly underestimated in recent times. But any human being's talents - which are probably largely genetic, though they must be trained and sharpened - will almost completely define the range of their creative abilities.

Unfortunately most (if not all) creative people are unable to accept that their capabilities are bounded. They believe their talents are wider, more all-embracing than they are. Very few creatives recognise the limits of their own abilities.

So one of the most important managerial tasks - as so often - is to pick well and pick right. In the realms of creativity this management function is particularly difficult. It is the hurdle which most often trips up managers who move into a creative business from outside: they have no fingertip sense of the talents of the people upon whose output they will depend. But if you get it right - the best people for the job, and people you enjoy working with - managing creative people is one of the greatest jobs on earth. Never tell them that, though. At least not in those words.

Because creative people rarely like to feel they are being managed at all. They think of themselves as free spirits - guided a little, motivated and encouraged - but fundamentally independent, driven by their own muses.

The word 'managed' implies bosses-and-subordinates, orders-and-obeisance.

Those are the very opposite of the working relationships which creative people seek. From their point of view you can be - indeed should be - their guide, their mentor, their inspiration. But you must never, overtly, 'manage' them.

Winston Fletcher is chairman of advertising group Bozell UK and a visiting professor at Lancaster University Management School. He has worked with creative people for over 30 years.

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