8 Quick Tips to Manage Creative Teams and People

I manage creative teams at our game studio and work with many independent game and app developers, people who passionately and happily spend their free time turning their impulsive ideas into playable experiences. They are programmers that can’t stop tinkering, and artists that can’t stop drawing (or modelling, animating…etc.) — highly talented people that live for creating and crafting their art.

These tend to be the most motivated bunch, and they also tend to have deep domain expertise because they have spent not just their work hours on improving their skills but also their precious evenings and weekends. I am often amazed at how talented these people are, and if you spend even just seconds talking to them, you soon realise how addicted they are to their tools, their thoughts, and their creations.

They can also be some of the most difficult people you’ll manage.

Why? Let’s look at some of the overlapping traits of many highly creative people:

  • Non-comformative
  • High personal output
  • Dedicated
  • Opinionated
  • Confident in her craft
  • Higher ego
  • Free spirited
  • Gets bored easily
  • Multi-passionate
  • Jumps from idea to idea
  • Places less focus on finance
  • Frustration when others “don’t get it”
  • Disregards for structure and management

They amaze you with their incredible talent, but can frustrate you with their unique approach to work. This is especially obvious if your project has a corporate client on one side, and a creative-thinking team on the other. One is focusing on their corporate metrics, the other on the artistic expression.

So how do we deal with this conundrum? Here are some of the most effective ways I’ve found to help manage highly creative talents:

  1. Acknowledge their knowledge and know-how. Creative talents have huge pride in what they do. Acknowledge the importance and brilliance in what they proposed and produced. (And if you don’t find them to be impressive, it might be a good idea to part ways quickly.) You’ve found the best creative talents for your projects, don’t be cheap in giving props - many artists live for the applause.
  2. Align individual goals with the organisational goals. Find out the true motivation behind each talent. Some love the purity of a creative project — clean codebase, streamlined pipelines, while others may care the most about the tools they use or the protocols they follow. Some care about their reputation in a specific community, while others may care more about having a say in the design. I often find monetary motivations aren’t necessarily high on the list of priorities for creative workers. Communicating the bigger picture to artists can help keep everyone on the same page and work towards the same goal. It’s not always obvious for creatives who spend their time crafting and tweaking to understand or care about the why behind each project. Make sure it’s obvious and communicate this early on.
  3. Buffer for freedom to express. Build in buffers, both in terms of budgeting and time, to allow people to experiment and toy with new ideas related to the project. Most of these experiments will not be included in the final deliverable, but there is always great learnings to gain from them, and the boost to moral is a huge benefit to keep the team engaged. Creatives aren’t motivated by money but by self-expression, so show them you understand and appreciate what makes them creative in the first place.
  4. Listen, and let time take care of issues. Creatives will clash, either with other creatives in the team or with the client of the projects, internal or external. First, listen to what they want to express and spend time to understand the issues. But don’t act on a fix right away. I’ve found that often times people will calm down and the issues would go away after a night of sleep, especially if they understand the bigger picture (see point 2). Although the immediate response to a clash might make people hot-headed, if people feel they are listened to and their concerns considered, they are most likely be calm down and compromise.
  5. Be a leader, not a boss. Lead the direction of the project but don’t boss people around. Let the creatives have control over their areas of responsibilities. It’s tempting to get “hands-on” if you have a creative background as well, but the more micro-managing you do, the less interested highly creative talents become. Creative workers don’t work well with strict rules and guidelines. Define the overall direction, empower your team, and let them enjoy the work and the accomplishment.
  6. Be specific with critique. There will be times when you have to challenge the work produced. Be specific with your comments and avoid being personal. Listen to the team to know why things are done a certain way, then offer your advice on how it can be improved or how it can be done differently to suit the need of the project. There aren’t always rights or wrongs with creative projects, but certain things will fit better with them, and if you are specific about these items, the critiques will be better received.
  7. Get excited but keep your eyes on the ball. It’s hard not to get excited when a creative person is telling you about their latest exciting creation. After all, new art is the fuel to their drive. Enjoy the excitement with them. At the same time, you have to be the one keeping an eye on the schedule, objectives and resource constrains, and you also need to be keeping the team away from adding too many cool new things to the todo list if it's going to take you off piste.
  8. Have fun - and be a rock. A creative team can be one of the most fun groups of people you'll ever work with, with its high energy and constant stimulation. The highs and lows can also be fairly dramatic in a high-energy, free-spirited team. As well as riding the fun times with them, make sure you play the role of a rock solid support the team can count on to keep calm and carry on during the tougher times.

Working with creative people is one of the most rewarding parts of my job, and if you manage creative teams right, I bet you feel the same!

Thoughts? Experiences? Agree / Disagree? Let’s discuss!


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