Business Tech: Managing Creative Talent

I met this man — nice guy, really smart — who had a simple philosophy. If two people disagree, it merely means that one of them doesn't have enough information to concede the point to the other one.

The problem with this assumption is that some questions have more than one right answer, and sometimes we disagree with one another because we are both right. People who see the world as my smart friend does are never going to be great at managing creative people. Creatives see the world in arrays of options, rarely in starkly defined absolutes.

From cave drawings to modern masterpieces, art is full of multiple right answers, nuanced differences, and glorious failures that had to be tried anyway. Starting with an agreed solution and relentlessly applying it is a wonderful approach for some tasks. Not all tasks resolve effectively with this approach. You can think of it as the difference between painting (a house) and painting (the Sistine Chapel). Both involve paint and brushes and a large surface, but one is mostly a matter of coverage, the other is a matter of imagination and expression.

Heard of Cats?

The popular phrase for managing any "difficult" group is "herding cats." And this is, unfairly to my mind, applied routinely to managing creatives. These people are generally more complex to manage than other groups, but most of the difficulty comes from trying to managing painting the same way you manage painting. They need a different approach.

Why are we discussing this in a Business Tech article? Because many of us are seen as "cats" in our various organizations. I would be willing to make the argument that most of us are cats. My friend and former boss, Eric Bischoff, had a sign over the IT room that read, "It's not a science, okay?" And we all know that, however much we'd like to see what we do as Computer Science, most of what we do is creatively re-interpret business practices into computer code.

Some of us are artists in more obvious ways. We do web design, we develop GUI interfaces, we build software that showcases graphical information. I've been to a lot of Spectrums, and OSDAs, and smaller user groups, and I've met a lot of cool cats. We are a creative group, and we are best managed by someone who sees us for what we are.


So, we have to retool some of the management rules if we want creative work to flow smoothly. One of the core places this applies are deadlines. Some days, I just can't summon the muse. Some days I just feel burnt out. How do you do a creative job when you are suffering your discipline's equivalent of writer's block? I like to have some rote projects handy for me and my team. I can pound out a report even when my mojo is in slo-mo. I can clean out dead files or do some other basic admin. Leaving some drudge in the schedule is good for creatives. Especially if it can be done with a loose deadline. A few hours of grunt work usually lets my mind percolate on the tougher projects while still getting something done with my time.

Another approach is to set goals and reward people who meet them with some downtime. If you really know the capabilities of your team, you can set rules like, "If the Henderson project is done by Friday, to my satisfaction, I don't care how long your lunches are this week." This is, of course, a trust exercise that requires trustworthy team members. When I work on projects for my own business, I have been known to build non-working time into my schedule. As a consultant, working off-site, I only charge for the hours I work, not for the total elapsed time, so I can perk myself with an Internet surfing break or other forms of goofing off.

Sometimes, my downtime is simply uptime on a different project. Writing an article as a head clearer before rewriting a web site, or alternating between some deep engine code and some bells-and-whistles features helps. Laser like focus is not my long suit. Multitasking is.

I Sense a Disturbance

I can't tell you how often I run into creatives who need, not want but truly need, to multi-focus. They can't really produce their own "A" effort without a TV on in the background or a pair of headphones piping music to their brains. Golfers need quiet to make that putt, some people need a room with muted colors on the wall to find their groove.

Creatives often need bright colors, background sounds, and other distractions to do their work. When I want to meditate, I like quiet. When I program, I crave a reasonable level of noise. Sit me in a dark room, bathed in the glow of six or seven monitors, leave a TV on in the background, and I am Mozart at the keyboard. Turn up the lights and enforce library-like silence and I will remind myself that as a professional, I am obligated to soldier on as best I can.

One size does not fit all with this category of employee. Clif Oliver has pointed out that for him to write, he needs to turn down the cell phone ringer, turn off the wifi, and immerse himself in the task. For my part, I wrote my last article on a break between giving presentations at Spectrum. As you can clearly see, I am not advocating that all creatives follow a single pattern. You can't just add that one page of tricks to your management handbook and mark this one "solved." Creatives need to be consulted and observed. Some of us don't know what's really best for us in terms of environment, we only know what works out of the limited choices we've been offered so far.

Normal? Define Normal

So, if we believe that creatives benefit from a more flexible set of rules and we accept that cooperatively developing those rules with the staff is the best course, you have one more question to ask yourself — isn't that the best way to approach your entire staff, not just your creatives?

Sure, the accounting team might prefer quiet in their work zone and the sales team might hate having day-glo walls, but they do have opinions about what makes a good working space. They aren't likely to be one-size-fits-all either.

Can you cater to everyone? No. It isn't management's job to re-invent the office every time someone is hired or fired. We, as management, do what we can with the budget, time, and corporate constraints we are given. I'm just saying that, within the limits we have... can't we be a little creative?


Charles Barouch is the CTO of HDWP, Inc. He is also a regular contributor to International Spectrum Magazine, a former Associate Editor for both Database Trends and for Gateways Magazine, a former distance learning Instructor for CALC. He is presently the Past President of the U2UG. Mr. Barouch has presented technology and business topics in front of hundreds of companies, in a wide range of product and service categories. He is available for on-site speaking and consulting engagements in and out of the United States.

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Jul/Aug 2011