Posted in practice on May 23, 2014 10:30 am EDT

Managing Creative People

An AEC firm's most bountiful asset can sometimes be the bane of its existence on certain levels.











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TAGS: business, creativity,


By Christian Doering

Deadlines. Blowing one can be expensive: blowing more than one can destroy your reputation. Falling behind schedule without an ironclad justification—like a change in project scope or a client who wants to change a previously approved design—is just not an option.

A design that’s late destroys value, no matter how good it is. A design that is dysfunctional, visually unimaginative, or that impedes communication with bad acoustics, will also destroy value. So today’s question is, “Can you meet deadlines without stifling innovation and initiative, without substituting mediocrity for excellence?” By the way, that will also be tomorrow’s question.

Creativity is in many ways a solitary pursuit. So how do you get creative people to work together? Culture is key. "culture eats strategy over breakfast."

—Peter Drucker Management Guru

Mind administration

Meeting deadlines means managing “creative” people. Let’s define creativity as meeting client expectations with the unexpected. Creatives don’t have to be geniuses all the time, or even most of the time. But they do have to solve questions whose answers, most of the time, are not obvious. Science tells us that the right brain/left brain dichotomy is a myth: we use all three pounds of that soft-tofu-like stuff in our heads whether we’re balancing our checkbooks or engaging in lateral thinking, brainstorming, brainswarming, “thinking outside the box,” re-framing or morphing.

Creative people tend towards eccentricity. That’s because they habitually use their brains differently. This is not something they can switch on or off at will. Creatives use approaches like lateral thinking even when they’re not called for, for instance when scheduling presentations. That’s why managing creative people is like herding cats. Put a bunch of solipsistic cat-people (or jumpy-twitchy frog-people or skittery squirrel-people) in front of a deadline, and the temptation to turn them into sheep can be almost overwhelming. Sheep are so … herdable. And that makes a manager’s job so much less stressful, doesn’t it? Problem is, sheep aren’t creative. Even when they do knock down a fence, they just kind of mill around, waiting for a person or dog to tell them what to do. Sheep don’t like being outside the box. A herd of sheep may finish projects on time, but they will also deliver mediocrity, every time. If you want to excel, and to schedule, you need to exercise a degree of control without stifling creativity.

Here are a few hints: "If you want people to think, give them intent, not instruction," says business author David Marquet. When you instruct, you put people in sheep mode. They run through the task list on autopilot without the absolute minimum of thought and commitment. When you define an intention, you set up a goal while encouraging people to find the best way to get there. That might involve leapfrogging difficulties, or jumping from branch to branch of a decision tree. The outcome matters: the process, not so much.

Manufacturing outcomes

A very visible way to show that you’re more interested in outcomes than in processes is to let your employees control their workspaces, both individual spaces (layout, height, and configuration of desks) and team spaces (Long rows? Circular breakouts? Let the workers decide what works.) But do set boundaries regarding neatness and order. Recent research backs up your first grade teacher: messy workspaces make people feel frustrated and weary, making it harder to focus. Sometimes you have to declare the outcome. “There is a time to stop rehearsing, stop waiting for perfection, stop waiting for control and just go for it,” in the words of consultant Deborah Mills-Scofield. Of course you want more than “good enough,” and so do the designers. But you also know when it’s time to accept the space between “good enough” and perfect, and move on.  continued >>