To Lead Creative Teams, Think Bowling

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Creativity and innovation are the currencies of the future. This is not a surprise any more than it is debatable. The rate of change has never been as fast as it is today, and it will only get faster. Nobody—not even the so-called “futurists”—really knows what’s coming around the corner, so the only defense (which is also the best offense) is to nurture and cultivate the creative talent in your organization. Creativity is the ultimate skill set for dealing with the unknown, and innovation is the applied use of that creativity to keep you commercially relevant and profitable. As management guru Harold R. McAlindon says:

The world leaders in innovation and creativity will also be world leaders in everything else.

The problem, though, is that while we expend tremendous amounts of money, energy, and resources attracting top innovative talent to our organizations, we really don’t know what to do with them when they’re there. We have this amazing tool—a creative team—at our disposal, and then we completely waste its potential. Why? Because most businesses expend most of their resources attracting innovative talent, and virtually none training their leaders on how to lead innovative talent. And believe me, as somebody who led a highly creative and innovative television comedy team to 10 straight years of #1 ratings, and well over 100 Emmy Awards, leading creative teams is a different skill set! So how do you do it?

Think bowling.

See, the little-known secret is that you don’t really “lead” creative talent. You give them a goal—a challenge, really—and then gently push them on their way. Think of it as a bowling alley. The bowling ball is your creative team, and the pins are the goal. Now, the pins are your responsibility—you’re the one setting the goal. A creative team needs—and in fact wants—a clear target; they just don’t want to be told how to get there. In my case working on the TV show (a Seattle-based comedy show), the target might be, “I need ten monologue jokes about the new Microsoft operating system,” or, “I need a two-and-a-half minute sketch that Michael Jordan can appear in.” This is you setting up the pins. And then you send the bowling ball—your team—on its way.

Now, is your job over? Not at all. There are these things called “alleys.” As the leader, you now need to step back and watch the progress of the ball. As long as it’s heading toward the pins, you really don’t have to do much of anything. But if you see it veering off toward one alley or another, it’s your job to give it a little tap this way, or a tiny nudge that way.

So here are the steps:

  1. Assemble a great, creative team (your bowling ball)
  2. Give them an exciting challenge (set up the pins)
  3. Send them on their way
  4. Stay out of their way, except…
  5. If you see them heading off course, give them a little push—guidance—in the right direction

Is this an over-simplification of the process? Yep. But if you can keep the bowling alley metaphor in mind, you’ll be a much better “leader” of creative talent.


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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