How to guide employees through creative work

by Bruce Tulgan09 Sep 2016
We know that ‘creative’ work is extremely valuable. But how can you possibly performance-manage ‘creativity’?
How long should it take to come up with an idea? How do you measure whether or not the idea is good, very good, or excellent?
There are always parameters. A longtime television industry veteran once told me, “Take the writers on a situation comedy. They are engaged in a highly creative process. But they have to keep each teleplay inside the twenty-four minutes. They have to work within the characters and back story of the show. At the end of the day, they need to get a show written, and then write another one, and then another.”
Yes, some jobs are more ‘creative’ than others. But even the most creative jobs have three elements in common with other work:
  1. A goal (purpose, required outcome, or at least a desired result).
  2. A timeframe (or an intended structure).
  3. Parameters.
These three elements are your management toolkit. The biggest favor you can do for employees doing ‘creative’ work is to keep reminding them of all the stuff that is not within their creative discretion.
Sometimes you, as the manager, may not have a clear goal yet. So you are sending this employee on a creative goose-chase of sorts, an exploration.
You are asking the employee to “take a crack at it” through wild improvisation to just “see what happens”.
Maybe this is part of your own creative process: You want something to look at, something that might help you imagine what the goal really should be.
If that is what you are doing, then you need to be very clear about that with yourself and with the employee from the outset.
Explain exactly what you have in mind, include the employee in your creative process, and explain exactly what role you have in mind for the employee in the process.
That’s how you avoid having the employee misunderstand, think of the process as his own creative process, and then feel like you the manager are failing his creative effort or else hijacking it for yourself.
In regular ongoing one-on-one dialogue with your ‘creative’ employees, or when discussing the ‘creative’ aspects of an employee’s work:
  1. Remember that parameters, timeframes, structure, and clear desired outcome are gifts to anybody doing creative work. At the outset of a creative project, it can seem like anything is possible and everything is on the table. That’s daunting because it makes the creative process into one agonizing choice after another. Always make it clear what is not within the ‘creative’ employee’s ‘creative’ discretion.
  2. Don’t let the creative employee mistake “reinventing the wheel” for real innovation. Make sure that the creative employee is well-versed in all the current best information and best practices on the matter in question before ever trying to ‘invent’ something new. Real innovation builds on, rather than ignores existing knowledge and skill and wisdom.
  3. Whenever the ‘creative’ is stuck or needing guidance, go back to the parameters, timeframes, structure, and desired outcome. Take them one by one. Desired outcome: Start with the purpose and then describe as much of the desired outcome as you possibly can—- all the details that the ‘creative’ does not have to create. Parameters: Spell them out. Timeframe/structure: Break it down, so employees understand exactly what is expected of them
  4. Remember rough drafts are sometimes a good jump-start for the creative process. Encourage your creatives to do rough drafts, first drafts, second drafts. Rough drafts take the pressure off at the outset and then give the creative and you something to work from and talk about, if not exactly ‘measure.’
Bruce Tulgan is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking. He is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader.