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The art of managing creative people
by Anne Miller, Director of The Creativity Partnership
Any good leader should be able to name a few particularly creative people within their organization. The company's future value may depend on what they do, but managing them is like herding cats.
If you try to force your creative mavericks to follow the official process or to work on a project that they're not interested in, at best they'll moan, at worst they'll refuse. Usually they will act like cats and get on with their own thing anyway, probably at 3 a.m. in breach of all the Health and Safety regulations.
On the other hand, cats do respond to things they are interested in: Wave a piece of paper on the end of some string in front of a kitten and watch its eyes light up.
The secret of managing creative people is just the same: Start by getting them interested in the question you want them to address. Whereas most people want to be reassured that they'll find the task easy and that there's a low risk of failure, for many creative people you need to emphasize just how difficult and important it is. Don't expect them to rigidly implement a 40 page requirement specification, but try to define the really fundamental questions and underlying user needs. Then encourage them to question it and explore for the best solutions. Often this will reveal elegant ideas that the 40 page specification would have precluded. In the process they will very often get so interested and motivated that pretty soon you'll find it difficult to tear them off your problem.
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Professor Amabile of Harvard has shown that this self generated "intrinsic" motivation is much more effective at encouraging creativity than is external "extrinsic" motivation. It is also cheaper. One client of mine recently offered a quite substantial prize (i.e., "extrinsic motivation") to staff for innovative ideas. They are unlikely to repeat the experience because its most noticeable effect was to stimulate jealously and secrecy.
Creative people tend to be task focused, rather than process focused. They get excited by a difficult challenge and get a real buzz from developing the vision of the way forward. They hate having to follow an imposed process unless it makes sense to them.
Creative people often ask for "freedom," but what they are really asking for is freedom within a clear, sensible framework. The framework should ideally be task focused and rational: For example, "we'll double sales if we can launch at the next Trade Fair" rather than arbitrary procedural rules, "You must wear a tie, even when working in the lab." This helps them focus their creativity and avoid going off at a tangent.
If you try for a management style based on command and control, you'll get scratched. Providing autonomy, support and guidance works much better.
Finally, just as most cats like being stroked, the most creative people tend to crave more recognition than the rest of us could believe possible. They are also unusually sensitive to rejection. This means that before providing constructive criticism of an idea, it's important to find something that you like about it. If the idea is truly dreadful, the best you may be able to think of is "I absolutely agree with you that this is a topic that we need to address." It's only once they have been reassured that you like at least something about their precious creation that they will be able to listen properly to what you say.
As I pointed out at the beginning, we are all creative. We can probably all recognize elements of many of these characteristics in ourselves and our colleagues. Very few of us have been lucky enough to have had the environment and help to let us achieve our full potential, but we know what a difference it makes when we:
feel we're working on something worthwhile and interesting
feel free and secure, not controlled.
feel praised, not punished.
Classical management orthodoxy tells us that we must follow the rules. Isn't it a pity that so often they are the wrong rules?
Anne Miller is an authority on creativity and innovation. She is director of The Creativity Partnership, one of the world's most prolific female inventors with 39 patents, and a co-founder of UK's leading independent technology innovation organization, TTPGroup PLC.
As director of The Creativity Partnership www.tcp-uk.co.uk, she provides consulting, workshops and management training for some of Europe's most significant organizations. She also lectures on executive education programs at several leading academic institutions, including the Judge Business School (Cambridge) and Chalmers University (Sweden).
She is an inspiring public speaker and has written numerous articles on creativity and innovation. Her book, How to get your ideas adopted (and change the world), is scheduled for release in the U.S. this September. See www.annemiller.info