Creative Work: Should You Manage Democracy or Dictatorship?

A Three-Step Model for Finding Balance in Creative Work And Avoiding Death by Consensus

by Matthew Carpenter-Arévalo @ecuamatt

Maybe you do creative work and maybe you manage a creative team. Your clients hire you exactly because of the creative energy you bring to the table. Despite managing a wealth of creative resources, you struggle to find a balance between seeking a democratic solution and going straight-out Alexander Lukashenko. What´s the right approach?

In October I attended Hubspot’s annual #Inbound15. During one of the presentations a phrase was uttered that hit me like a bag of anxiety-ridden cats: “Mediocrity is what´s left over after you shave the edges off of quality to make everyone happy.”

As an entrepreneur, I started my boutique digital agency (www.centricodigital.com) with the express purpose of being able to live from my creativity. So far, so good.

Despite early success (aka survival), my most recurring problem is finding a balance between gathering input and feedback and insisting on a coherent vision.

Sometimes I find people shaving the edge´s of what I feel are my renaissance sculptures, and sometimes I find myself reacting to others´ proposals by pulling out my own chisels. The question is, how do we find balance between extracting others´ creative energies and pushing forward with an idea?

I haven´t figured out the solution, and the degree of complexity generally tends to be proportional to the degree of bureaucracy you have to fight with to get approval. Despite this, I propose here a 1.0 draft of the model we´re trying to implement in Céntrico Digital with the hopes that you all can provide us with some ideas as to how to strengthen this model.

A Three-Step Model for Creative Work:

Step 1: Brainstorming.

Brainstorming should be the most anarchic, chaotic, and freewheeling exercise known to man. In a good brainstorming session there are no filters, no power structures, no idea too “out there,” and the only forbidden word should be the word “No.” In a good brainstorming session we want to eliminate all forms of censorship and self-censorship to explore the outer limits of our creative potential.

Depending on how hierarchical your organisation is, you may want to take steps to eliminate the connection between the idea and the proponent of the idea.

For example, in Google, where I used to work, we talked a lot about the value of the opinion of the highest paid person in the room. Sometimes the ideas of the highest paid person are not sufficiently vetted because of fear. As a result, teams end up rallying around a good idea, but not the best idea, because no-one wants to be the person to tell the boss her idea stinks.

One way to avoid the best-paid-person complex is to have people sketch out ideas on post-it notes, place those post-it notes on a piece of paper, and then pass the paper around. Eventually each A4 gets filled with ideas, and it´s not immediately clear who proposed what idea.

By divorcing the idea from the person who proposes the idea, we can discuss ideas fully and completely.

Finally, if you’re a manager and you’re worried that your employees wont give you honest feedback, accompany your ideas with the question, “tell me five reasons why this works and five reasons why this doesn’t work?”. By seeking feedback proactively, rather than inviting it reactively, you´re more likely to receive it.

Step 2: Vision Building Through Consensus

Collective action is a wonderful tool for brainstorming, but a shitty tool for filtering ideas. If you are or if you have a creative director, the reason you’re paid the big bucks is because of your judgement: rather than acting as the Don Draper who takes a whisky-induced nap for a few hours every afternoon only to wake up with the idea for shake-and-bake, your job is to consider all of the ideas on their own merit and choose which ones to pursue.

The two stages of vision building therefore includes filtering, which is a process I like to do with a limited group of people (2–3 key stakeholders maximum), and consensus building.

The filtering process usually produces a brief which includes short and long descriptions of what is actually about to unfold. If you work in marketing you probably have a brief template you use, and if you don’t, a brief template is simply a document that organises in a coherent fashion the ideas and resources you will use and how they will interact with each other.

Once the brief is written you can circulate it to the larger group of key stakeholders and receive their feedback. Providing feedback for a brief is not the same as exercising a veto. Instead, the purpose of the brief is to ensure that the stakeholders are aligned and agree on what the vision of the project is and what steps need to be taken. The feedback should be taken as serious but not sacred.

Step 3: Execution/Dictator-Mode

Most creative projects break down in the execution stage because all of the stakeholders have a vision as to how things need to be executed. Everyone breaks out their chisels, including many first time sculptors, and start shaving away until Michelangelo’s David starts to look like a monument to poo.

If you are the ultimate person responsible for the quality of the work, you can´t bet your success on other people’s visions in which you have no confidence. As the person whose job is on the line, you have to feel comfortable and confident that the plan of action is the right one. If you fail you can at least own the failure. If you fail trying to implement someone else’s vision, few people will take the time to identify the body stuck under the bus.

Given the propensity for consensus to kill art, I´d suggest it’s ok to go into dictator mode whilst in the execution stage. The main justification for dictator mode is that most people wont understand art until it is produced, and most art wont speak for itself until it exists. Given that it is far better to show than to tell, you have to allow yourself to get to the point where you actually have something to sell.

If you’re the creative lead, you have to develop the ability to accept feedback willingly without allowing feelings of self-doubt to paralyse you. In other words, you have to maintain a duality of confidence and doubt that is mediated by your own ability to be as objective as possible about your work.

Being objective means listening. That jackass who has given 9 bad ideas may have a great idea for #10. The intern who thinks he knows millennials better than you because he is one may just be on to something. We therefore have to let these ideas in without letting them take over whilst being aware of our own biases.

As long as you´re doing something truly creative, a probability will always exist that there are better ideas with better execution and there are worse ideas and worse execution that you could be pursuing. The fear of these two is what forces most creative projects to be aborted. As Woody Allen said, half of success is showing up, and you can fail in many acceptable ways, but not showing up is simply unacceptable.

Finally, if you’re not the creative lead but instead the manager, understand that your biggest contribution may be getting out of the way and allowing people to get through dictator mode unscathed. We cannot insist that we be allowed to fulfil our vision without allowing others to do the same. The world doesn’t always need more you, and if you’ve hired a truly great team they should exceed your expectations on a fairly regular basis. If they’re not exceeding your expectations, you probably don’t have the right team.

Conclusion

Much of building a successful creative process depends on the organisational structure within which one operates. If there is too rigid a hierarchy good ideas will not be able to flourish. If the hierarchy is too flexible no-one will make decisions and the autopsy will report death by consensus. There needs to be a clear delineation of responsibilities and decision-making authority without so much ego that great ideas are sacrificed in order to accommodate good ideas that come from the mouths of the highest paid people. As I´ve stated previously, the perfect analogy would be a jazz band, whereby the collective works to bring out the true potential of the individual through structure, coordination, and clear leadership.

In the end, I´m not 100% sure our proposed methodology works as a blanket template, but I´m certain that, should we continue to refine, tweak and and seek feedback, we´ll eventually find the basis of a structure that will allow us to extract maximum creative potential from our stakeholders without shaving off the corners of quality. If you´ve read this far, any ideas you can contribute are more than welcome.

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