Nurturing Creativity

by Billy Pittard on August 11, 2009

Judging by the wealth of articles in current business magazines, creativity is at last recognized as one of the most important processes in business. At the same time, it remains one of the trickiest to manage. Creativity just doesn’t lend itself to routine management like other business processes. Creativity really comes down to some pretty squishy processes that happen inside people’s heads.Nurturing creativity is mainly about getting people in the right state of mind.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned while managing high-performance creative teams for many different kinds of projects. The work may vary, but the human aspects are constant.

First you need creative people.

Whatever kind of creative work you or your company do, make sure there is a fit between the people and the work, and go for the best people you can find. I think of it like casting roles in a movie: the player must fit the role. Miscasting just doesn’t work. Yeah, sure, anybody can be creative, and pretty much anybody can play basketball, but there is a world of difference in people’s abilities. I don’t know about you, but I want to be on a winning team and that starts with the right players.

Talent plays a huge role, but attitude is equally important. I’d choose a person who has a solid portfolio of work with confidence and a drive to do great work over someone with a stellar portfolio and a prima-donna attitude. A confident person who focuses on the work and on improving his or her abilities produces more consistently great work than a hotshot prima donna who needs constant attention.

It’s also important to think about how the whole team fits together. Define roles and assignments so that everyone pulls together instead of fighting against each other. Creative people need to clearly understand the role they are expected to play, and then give them the space to run with their assignments.

Nurture the performance and growth of the individual creative team members. Make sure both management and the creative individuals know what’s important in their performance, and then provide thoughtful, meaningful, constructive, honest, and comprehensive feedback.

Second, you need a creative environment.

There’s an unmistakable magic in the air of a great creative environment. And there’s also an unmistakable pall about a place that suppresses creativity. You can have practically everything right, but one element out of balance can ruin the effect.

Physical space is important. There are about as many ways to make a workspace creatively stimulating as there are creative people. Different people like different qualities in their environment. And that’s one of the keys: let creative people have control over their own workspace.

Comfort is important. It’s much harder to be creative if it’s too noisy, too hot or cold, or if your workspace is ergonomically inadequate.

Good light is critical.

A balance of privacy and interaction is important. Creative people need opportunity, time, and space to focus and concentrate without distraction. At other times, opportunity to interact with others is important.

Nothing inspires creative people like other creative people. This could be co-workers, people at creative conferences, creative work in media such as magazines, films, and websites, or any other place where a creative person can find inspiration. When it comes to creative inspiration, quality counts. See my previous blog post for Sweet Inspiration.

Third, you need a creative culture.

Culture comes down to what you celebrate, what you tolerate, and the values you actually live by. If you want to nurture creativity, treat creative achievement with the respect and recognition it deserves. Do not tolerate dishonesty, office politics, or other negative factors because they stifle creativity. Make sure your company’s values (whether formally recognized or not) are sincere and morally respectable.

The number one requirement for a healthy creative culture is to give credit where credit is due. I’ve known creative people to suffer lots of abuses, but having someone else take credit for their work, or not being properly or adequately acknowledged for their contributions is one of the most damaging offenses, and one that would cost the company literally no money to get right.

Celebrating creativity is pretty easy to do, but it surprises me how often I see the opportunity being missed. It comes down to simple things like taking the time to stop and admire creative work that the team just completed, entering your best work in competitions and making sure you celebrate wins, and speaking respectfully of creative achievements in company communications.

Very creative people tend to be a bit more sensitive and pure of heart than the general population – at least that has been my experience. Because of that, negative factors can have a much more damaging effect on their state of mind. It’s not that they are fragile as much as it is that they are more affected because of their sensitivity. Sensitivity is necessary for creativity, so the culture needs to respect and support that.

Fourth, you need to provide adequate resources.

I’m an avid gardener and I often see parallels between gardening and creative management. Plants take time to grow, flower and bear fruit. They need adequate soil, sun, water and air, and fertilizing plants gives them a big boost. Some types of plants grow faster than others, but they all require time, and getting an early start is key. The same principles apply to creative processes.

Proper funding, tools, training, and technical support are critical, but one of the most important resources is simply time. High-quality creative work needs adequate time for incubation and production. There is no substitute for an early start. When I garden, I have learned what an amazingly gratifying experience it is to plant a seed or root a cutting and to come back days or weeks later and discover a beautiful plant has grown. I practice this same principle with a creative team. As early as possible I plant the seeds of ideas for the project with the creative team. Then a wonderful thing happens; the team members begin to formulate ideas seemingly almost without effort – because their subconscious minds have been at work.

How many times have you had a creative assignment and delayed getting it to the creative team? It’s so easy to put things off, and yet so easy to plant those seeds early on.

Fifth, you need processes that facilitate creativity.

Every creative assignment should go through the following processes. The steps can overlap and vary quite a bit, but this is the time-tested way to arrive at the best creative solutions.

1)   Discovery – learning all you can about the assignment

2)   Experimentation – trying a range of possible solutions to find the best one

3)   Refinement – refining the selected solution

4)   Production – bringing the solution to final form

The pressures of this hurry-up world we live in make us want to skip through the process and go straight to production. On very rare occasions, circumstances are right for rushing to production to work out to an acceptable result, but consistently high levels of creative excellence require this step-by-step kind of process.

Digital tools have undermined this time-tested creative process. They make it possible to polish up a poor idea with treatments and effects so that the end result looks “polished” even though there is no substance behind it. I see this happening all around: in websites, in advertising, in consumer products. It’s the creative equivalent of junk food.

I have no idea who originally said this, but there’s a lot of wisdom in it: “Practice safe design: use a concept.”

Take care of your creative staff and they will take care of you.

Of course, this is a very simplified overview of what it takes to nurture creativity in a business setting, but if you get these things right, your creative staff will be in a much better position to achieve a consistently high level of quality. It’s all about getting the creative team in the right state of mind.

Please contact me with your thoughts and comments, and don’t be afraid to ask me to come into your business to help you achieve a greater level of excellence.

Copyright 2009, Billy Pittard

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