If you’ve ever led creative people, you know that managing creative teams takes special techniques. Creativity and imagination can bring innovation as well as impracticality.
Research has shown best practices for how to manage process teams, transportation teams, supply chain teams, and others. But how to manage creative teams still seems to be an unanswered question with a lot of conflicting advice.
Let’s explore how creativity affects productivity and what it takes to manage creative teams.
Tips for Managing Creative Teams
When we talk about managing a creative person, we don’t mean a once-in-a-generation artist. People like Leonardo da Vinci are not very employable and are unlikely to seek work in an organization. We mean creative employees that you might find on a corporate team, such as UX designers, marketing specialists, animators, or content strategists. Employable people, whether creative or not, want structure and consideration. They want to know what’s expected of them and that somebody supports and cares about them.
Structure and consideration aren’t all creative employees need to thrive. Ryne referenced Ed Catmull, computer scientist and cofounder of Pixar, as a successful leader of creatives. In his biography, Creativity, Inc., Catmull names three concepts that are integral to managing creative teams1:
- Candor – In a creative context, candor means responding to creative ideas with constructive honesty that keeps the team from ideating unproductively. It means being able to say, “I see where you’re going with that, but I don’t think that’s going to work for these reasons,” without stifling trust or innovation.
- Collaboration – Managing a creative team means fostering an environment where people want to work together to create something bigger than they could make on their own.
- Focus – A focus on solving design problems ties in the aspects of candor and collaboration. When a creative team can focus on creative solutions in a specific scenario, it becomes clear which ideas are likely to work and what tasks the team members will need to perform.
“Creating an environment like this requires earning a lot of trust over time,” Ryne observed. “Trust is a critical component of teams.”
Who Should Lead Creative Teams?
In creative work, efficiency is not always the highest priority. “What happens when you put a bunch of people who know about business in charge of a bunch of creatives? You end up with a disaster,” Ryne said.
Having a creative person lead creative people has pros and cons. Often, a team leader is a former team member. “It’s pretty common in creative teams to see the leader is someone who is creative themselves,” Ryne said. A significant advantage is that the creative leader understands from experience that the creative process takes time, although a leader who isn’t creative can appreciate the nuances of the creative process too.
Defending the Team
The person who should manage a creative team is someone who can defend the team and justify their unique needs to the organization. Their leader needs to be able to tell executives that progress is happening, that more time or resources are needed, and that updates will be frequent.
Creative teams may seem to have no productivity for a while. A leader who doesn’t appreciate that creativity often happens in bursts would be less able to give a good account of the team to stakeholders. An inexperienced team manager might succumb to perceived pressure and blame the team for lack of results. In a disaster scenario, that might cause team members, the manager, or both to be fired.
Supporting the Team
In addition to standing with their employees externally, managers of creative teams need to support creativity internally. “When you create an environment where people can’t be candid with each other, where they feel like they have to agree to everything because ‘we all want to get along and collaborate,’ that can be really problematic,” Ryne said. Too much agreement—or too much disagreement—can hinder creative problem-solving. Strong socioemotional skills, including communication and empathy, will serve a creative team manager well.
Managing Mixtures: Creatives and Noncreatives
Many teams are mixtures of creatives and noncreatives. Creative people tend to score low on the Hogan Personality Inventory’s Prudence scale and high on the Inquisitive scale. These scores suggest a tendency to be curious, flexible, not focused on process or execution, disorganized, easily bored, tolerant of ambiguity, and resistant to supervision. To coworkers who score differently on these scales, creatives can seem distractable, unfocused, and even lazy. How do managers help people in these two types of roles collaborate?
“Creative individuals tend to work in bursts,” Ryne said. “There’s a spark. There’s an idea. Then you just work and work and work and work until you’ve got it done.” This production style can pose a challenge when working with people who aren’t in creative roles. Managers of creatives must provide the opportunity for them to work whenever inspiration strikes . . . without interrupting or impeding the needs of other team members.
What’s important for a manager is to maximize creativity bursts when they arrive, understand that the fallow periods are necessary, and build an environment conducive to sparks of inspiration. Forcing a creative employee to remain at a desk during traditional office hours could be genuinely detrimental to their work product. At the same time, the creative employee’s operational counterpart works best when keeping an exact schedule.
People with seemingly incompatible personalities can and do work together harmoniously and productively. Their manager needs to foster understanding between them about what’s expected from each other’s roles. A team session can be good for building mutual respect.
Advice for Managing Creative Teams
To wrap up the podcast episode, Ryne shared his best insights for managing creative teams: “Candor is critical for creative teams. Create an environment where people feel comfortable sharing the good and the bad. Create an environment where people feel comfortable saying, ‘This is a bad idea, and this is why we need to go a different direction.’ Too often in creative teams that are focused on collaboration, you never really create the thing that’s truly creative because everybody has to have their part in it, and even the bad ideas get included. Find a way to eliminate the bad ideas in a productive, nonthreatening way.”
Listen to this conversation in full on episode 82 of The Science of Personality. Never miss an episode by following us anywhere you get podcasts. Cheers, everybody!
- Catmull, E. (2023). Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Random House.