A Romantic Illusion

Calling out on one of the greatest misconceptions in modern management thinking.

Over the past 10 years I learned how good it feels to create and improve something together. Being involved in this vibe, or creative energy as I like to call it, has been one of the most amazing aspects of my professional career. It’s the most powerful and honest source of motivation and inspiration I can think of.

Creative energy gets you out of bed in the morning, not because you have to but because you want to.

Every organisation, from small-sized start-up to established corporation, depends on creative energy to create & deliver value to its customers.

Whether you are CEO of an entire company or managing an internal team, there is nothing you want more than to have your people run high on creative energy.

Now here comes an uncomfortable truth: the more I think about it, the more I believe there is something completely wrong with the way creative teams are managed. The main problem is we are convinced we can actually manage. It’s a mindset in which I operated for a while too, but it does not make sense trying to scientifically deal with the chaos of creativity.

Following The Right Steps

Think of all the stuff you heard about agile methodologies or design thinking. As long as we follow the right steps, there should be total control over the process, the results will be remarkable and the team members will feel really good about themselves.

Yeah right.

I believe this is one of the greatest misconceptions in modern management thinking. It’s a romantic illusion. The truth is that every team struggles with the uncertainty, unpredictability and pressure that comes along with creating and improving things. This is why these management theories are so popular in the first place, because they sell us the idea that we can predict, control and even automate the whole process. That we can tackle the chaos!

In most organisations, leading creative teams has become all about process. No worries, we’re agile. The sad thing is that those teams never run high on creative energy. In fact, they are often slaves to the system and its rules. They spend too much energy on doing things right instead of doing the right things.

I believe we should stop treating creative teams as machines that we need to control. We should accept the chaos that comes with creativity and look for better ways to enjoy the rollercoaster ride. Because that’s what running high on energy is all about. Don’t try to ease the ride and kill the vibe. Embrace the amazing ups and downs, the excitement, the fear, the rush.

If you want to become a better leader I advise you to think of your team as if it were your most beloved customer. Your job would be to sell them a spot in your team day after day. And make sure they buy the spot not because they have to, but because they want to. Figuring out how to get people on board, that’s what Creative Leadership is all about.

Creative Confidence

During the first years at Little Miss Robot we had no documented internal workflow or preferred methodology. We were just a small team of passionate people confident enough to tell clients we would come up with the right solution for their problem. Somehow we trusted ourselves to figure things out along the way and we were never scared to give it our best shot.

It took me a few years to realize how precious and powerful this behavior actually was. We came in to work because we truly believed we could change things for the better. Or as described by Tom & David Kelley in their inspiring bestseller, because we were thriving on Creative Confidence.

The combination of thought and action defines creative confidence. The ability to come up with new ideas and the courage to try them out.

So what was going on here? How did this liberating feeling of trust and confidence came to life? What made us run so high on creative energy? The answer can be found in 2 powerful elements that are often ignored or forgotten: purpose and learning.

  • Purpose. We operated from a clear mission to improve digital interactions between people and brands. To add more joy and excitement to our world. We came to work because we wanted to be involved in bringing this cause to life. No matter what, no matter how.
  • Learning. We also had a strong desire to better understand what could be done and how to help each other move forward. During lunch we often took the time to listen to each other’s struggles and shared opinions on how to deal with them. We also liked to discuss weird challenges, like how to outrun a bear or how to get in touch with Mariah Carey. Through these brainstorms we got to know each other on a totally different level, I can tell you that.

The point is that we had a simple management vision. We only hired people who cared deeply about bringing our purpose to life. And we encouraged them to experiment as much as possible. The more they learned, the more we would benefit from having them on the team.

Like any other growing company we improved our operations to keep up the quality of work and stay protifable. There is nothing wrong with implementing a better structure, as long as your main goal is to have your team run high on energy.

Don’t fall for the romantic illusion that you can scientifically manage a creative process and great results will automatically follow. The truth is you can’t. Your team is not a machine and it needs the energy to come up with anything truly valuable.

So don’t fight the creative rollercoaster, embrace it. Start with asking yourself why you hopped on in the first place? And why others should too. I can promise you one thing: there isn’t a single talented creative individual out there who doesn’t like an awesome ride.

Have a great day,

Thanks for hitting the 💙 if you enjoyed this article. It helps me to inspire more people here on Medium!

Thomas helps people grow their ability & courage to lead creative teams. He provides in-house coaching and writes weekly publications on Creative Leadership. Previously Creative Director & Managing Partner at Little Miss Robot.