How To Lead a Creative Team

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I’ve never run a pre-school daycare, but for fifteen years I was the boss of ten multi-Emmy Award winning comedy writers, which amounts to pretty much the same thing. As the Executive Producer of Seattle’s sketch comedy TV show, Almost Live!, it was my job to keep a highly creative team motivated and productive. I learned a lot of things along the way, but primarily I learned that a creative team needs two seemingly incompatible things in order to thrive: direction and freedom—with a little fire thrown in along the way. Let’s take these one at a time. But first, a disclaimer:

DISCLAIMER: ALL people are inherently creative. The only difference between “creative” and “non-creative” people is that “creative” people believe they are creative. When I talk about “creative” people and teams in this article, I’m referring to those who both believe they are creative and who work in what would generally be considered a creative field. Like, say, writing comedy for a sketch comedy TV show.

Direction: Okay, I’m going to paint brain science (as well as creative people) with an absurdly broad brush here by saying that creative people tend to be great with their right brain (the creative side), and not so great with their left brain (the side that focuses on things like, oh, deadlines, or being at meetings on time). (And for any brain scientists who might be reading this—yes, yes, I know that the brain is actually more holographic and plastic than this. I read The Brain That Changes Itself. I’m just trying to make a point. And take these damn electrodes out of my head.) You, as a leader, have hopefully risen to this position partly because you’ve learned how to balance both sides of the brain (although you probably tend a little more to the left side). What this means is that your creative team could be a little, shall we say, “scattered”? In a way, they’re a bit like a puppy, or a two-year old child. They need to know the rules and the boundaries—and that’s where you come in. It’s your job to make sure they’re clear on the targets, whatever they may be.

(By the way, if your team complains about having “rules” and “boundaries,” please remind them that, at their creative peak, the Beatles were limited to 4-track recorders and 20-25 minutes per album side. And then remind them that, within these limitations, the Beatles created albums like Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. That should shut them up. My TV show, Almost Live!, was exactly 27 minutes and 55 seconds long, every week, for 15 years, and we had a very firm deadline: Saturday night, 11:30pm. So keep this in mind: It’s not the limitations, it’s what you do within the limitations that counts.)

Freedom: So here’s the balancing act. Yes, you need to set and communicate clear targets, but if you then try to tell your creative team how to achieve these targets, you’ll lose them. You’ll lose them mentally (they’ll lose interest and tune out), or you’ll lose them physically (they’ll go work for the competition), but you’ll lose them. Creative people (just like puppies and two-year old children) need space to play, explore, and discover. They need the freedom to try things that don’t work. Have you ever seen a toddler playing with blocks? She can play for hours, trying to figure out how to arrange them so they don’t fall down. But the minute a parent comes over and says, “Here, try it this way,” the child loses interest. See, while you as the leader may get your kicks out of reaching the destination, your creative team gets its kicks out of the journey—especially if the journey contains some interesting detours. Which brings us to…

The Fire: Creative people thrive in a stimulating environment, and they die in a sterile one. So it’s your job as the leader of a creative team to make sure the work environment has some fire to it. You want your creative team to be more motivated and productive? Paint your drab white walls blue. Subscribe to interesting magazines from a variety of fields and leave them lying around the office. Occasionally bring in a guest from a different department or industry. Expose your team to new ideas and new influences. You never know what’s going to spark a brilliant idea in one of them.

Bottom Line: A creative team that comes up with brilliant ideas is one of the most valuable resources any organization can have. If you want to give your creative team the best possible chance for success, give them clear ground rules and then let them run free.


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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