How to Create a More Creative Staff
by Dean Rieck
I have to wonder about some creative directors and managers. They claim to want creativity from their staff, but the environment they create is often full of stress, fear, and confusion. I'm not talking about tyrants yelling and screaming. I'm talking about hiring creative people and then not letting them be creative.
It could be subtle things like asking for some fresh ideas on a marketing campaign, then when fresh ideas are suggested, rejecting them in favor of old ideas you've used a dozen times before. Or assigning a rush project without providing background information and then asking for extensive changes when the final product doesn't measure up to your expectations.
Such behavior sends a clear message to your staff that you do not respect or value their skills. And over time, this trains your staff to expend the bulk of their energy trying to make you happy or avoid your criticism instead of doing the job you supposedly hired them for.
If you're in a management position, you are largely responsible for your staff's output. And they can only be as creative as you allow them to be. Are you an anal-retentive control freak? Are you overbearing and threatening? Do you constantly criticize ideas that don't agree with your own? Are you indecisive, saying one thing and doing another? Do you feel threatened by the creativity of your staff?
This sort of introspection is hard stuff. But if you're serious about helping your staff do better work, start your improvement program where it will make the most difference with YOU. Here are a few pointers:
- Hire the right people. If you want to control the creative output of your office, hire people who will carry out your wishes. If you want people who think for themselves, hire people who are independent and have their own ideas. You can't get creative work from worker bees or submission from independent spirits. Be honest about what you really want and hire the people who fulfill your needs. If you've had a problem with this, have someone else interview prospective employees to bring more objectivity to the hiring process.
Let creative people create. You can dictate objectives. You can evaluate results. But you can't control what happens in between. If you try to micro manage the creative process, you will get poor performance from your creative staff.
For example, some time ago, a client hired me to write a direct mail package. They wanted me to first submit several ideas so they could pick the one they liked. Then they wanted me to write headlines and subheads for their approval. Then I was to write the remainder of the copy as a first draft without changing the headlines in any way. They told me this was all necessary because otherwise I might not deliver what they expected. In other words, they want to closely control the creative process from start to finish. Needless to say, the final product suffered as did response.The creative process can be guided but not controlled. Creative people have their own way of doing things that's why they're the "creative" staff. Get out of the way and let them work.
Make the workplace feel safe. Uncertainty and fear are not conducive to creative work. When people are more concerned about how management will react to their work than about how productive they are, you will get work geared not for results but for approval. Have high standards, but encourage risk and accept mistakes.Create an informal, relaxed atmosphere to allow your staff to concentrate on their task. Define problems and expectations clearly so you can evaluate results objectively and avoid personal reactions. If you're not sure how to do all this, ask your staff what you can change to make work more productive and enjoyable.
- Encourage creative people to look for problems to solve. Think about a time when your superior handed you a job you didn't want. It was hard to summon a great deal of energy for the project, wasn't it? The same applies to your staff. When you allow them to identify and solve problems in other words, when you let them take ownership of problems and solutions you increase their power in the situation, as well as their commitment and enthusiasm.
- Make results the ultimate reward. Creative awards are a pat on the back from colleagues. In that way, they are important, since writers and designers and producers often don't get much attention any other way. Unfortunately, those pointy hunks of plastic aren't the same as actual profits. The business of business is business, so reward your creative staff for actual results. Hand out bonuses. Post winning promotions in the lunch room. Write up articles in your newsletter about testing victories. Let your staff know in a tangible way that their contributions play a vital role in the company.
Allow for "intelligent failure." Direct marketing is all about testing. And failure is an integral part of testing and a natural part of the learning process. So don't criticize a negative result or write it off as a waste of money. Since every test should be a test of something specific, discuss negative results in terms of what you've learned from the test.If one of your staff wrote a package to test a new offer and it didn't work, don't say, "Well your direct mail package flopped." Say instead, "Well it seems that offer isn't as appealing as the old one. What else can we try?" This keeps you focused on the problem instead of the person and keeps the staff motivated to find a successful solution.
Know why you do what you do. There's nothing worse than trying to succeed by taking random creative stabs at a problem. Every idea should have a solid rationale to back it up. Every test should answer a specific question. Over time, you should build a database of knowledge about what works, how well, and WHY. Without knowing why, you really don't know much.If a token boosts response by 30%, ask why. Is it because this particular token relates closely to the product? Calls attention to the offer? Appeals to your prospect's sense of play? This is a difficult question to answer, but you should try. Knowing why helps you know when to apply particular techniques and when not to.
- Balance risk and reward. Creating is a kind of investment. Greater rewards come only by taking greater risks. Total safety is usually synonymous with mediocrity. This is not to say that you should ignore proven techniques. It means that while you should start with a tried and true solution, you should keep testing. And your testing should include some ideas that are different and uncertain, just as a well-balanced investment portfolio should include a few risky investments to increase your odds of long-term success. And of course, the greatest risk is not testing in the first place.
Don't expect instant success with these ideas. Creating a work environment that encourages productive creativity takes months or years. Don't try to overhaul everything overnight. You'll just create confusion and fear. Start small and introduce changes gradually, one-by-one. Ask your staff about changes they would like to make. Try out some of their ideas, even if you think they won't work. You might be surprised.
In our final session, we'll tackle a special creative process that everyone thinks they understand, but which few do well: Brainstorming. It's more than sitting around a table and hashing out two or three ideas. And done properly, it just might generate that big, breakthrough idea you've been looking for.
Copyright © 1999 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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