How to leverage and engage In-house creative teams

Part 2- “We’re all in this together…”

In my last article I wrote about how in-house creative teams often struggled with a lack of respect from their business counterparts, comparing their struggles to those of Quint and Mr Hooper from the movie Jaws. Much of the emphasis from that article was on how design professionals need to take the initiative and align themselves with the business in order to gain trust and ensure that their activities were relevant to the goals of the business. This article considers the responsibilities of the business to motivate and empower designers on their own terms, and in ways that resonate with this unique and influential group.

Acknowledge the differences

The first thing for a business manager to do is to admit that the things that motivate a design team are probably not the same things that motivate a business person…at least on the surface. I’ve seen a lot of managers make the false assumption that monetary incentives are the universal panacea that will get people moving and engaged. While cash is good, it’s not always the best carrot to dangle, at least not until other table stakes have been addressed. Start by focusing on the work to be done, delineating quality expectations, deadline requirements, and any other relevant details. Let them know that addressing the work requirements is top priority no matter what. This may sound obvious,but I’m taking the time to emphasize it as a prerequisite for the next step… loosen up your expectations for a 9 to 5 work schedule.

Designers don’t think in terms of 9 to 5…they gather inspiration and ideas around the clock, and most of them will jump in and apply them when the epiphany strikes. If your rock star designer naturally comes in around 10, and he’s willing to log at least 8 hours, you’re better off letting him have a flexible schedule. Besides, the fact is that if you lean on him too hard about things like that, he’s probably off to another design team with a better culture. Let everyone know that the work has to get done well and on time, make sure they show up on time for all meetings (even the 7am ones with the client on the other coast), and give them enough room to do their jobs without micro-managing them. As long as everyone has a clear understanding that the work get’s done no matter what, this approach works quite well. The designers police themselves an do what’s necessary. One thing to watch out for is designers who mismanage their time and deliver something on time, but the result is uninspired and flat. Make sure designers know you can spot a design that was thrown together at the last minute, and that you expect more than that. But I digress…the main point is to emphasize the work as the main thing and empower the designer.

Ask, listen, and throw out a challenge

Everyone knows it’s important to listen to the team and solicit feedback, but it’s important to emphasize this point here… because there are few collective groups who feel more ignored or misunderstood as the in-house designers. If you’re a designer, be sure to share new trends or ideas you’ve been reading about, ,asking how to integrate them into the current work flow. If you’re not a designer, ask what trends they’re seeing, and empower them to share new ideas with the team on a weekly basis. Along the same lines, look for opportunities to throw out “what if” scenarios that go beyond accepted norms. “What if we did have a bigger budget, what do you guys think we could accomplish then?” “What if the deadline were two weeks longer, how would that change our approach?” The answers you receive just might lead you to insights that break things open or lead in a new direction. Perhaps you can’t change the deadline, but the suggestion just might be workable on a smaller scale…It’s not about the individual solution per se…it’s more about changing the thought patterns and making people receptive to new ideas and ways of thinking.

Instill optimism and hope… Habitually

Building a creative culture and instilling aa sense of wonder and curiosity in a design team takes work. The team needs to trust its leaders and know that management really walks the talk. Too often an oppressive and callous manager will jump up and try to cheerlead to innovation and then get frustrated when his ovations are met with less than full enthusiasm. It’s no different than if you jumped up as said “Let’s go run a 6K race.” People need to be trained and conditioned to be creative…they need to know it’s safe and that the organization values them, and THEN they need to have heads and hearts that are nimble, playful, and able to embrace and run with an idea.

A good way to start is to simply purge the team from any and all preemptive thinking. It’s so easy for an in-house tea to start throwing out statements like “That’ll never work, we tried that three years ago and got shot down”…Don’t use purple, the CEO HATES that color”…”Management will never (fill in the blank). When a team works for the same management team for a long period of time, they begin to anticipate their responses and roll over without thinking. Yes, you should try to please your boss, and make sure you’re in lock-step with the brand, but you should feel comfortable with advancing new ideas, even if they’re old ideas who’s time has come.

The thing I like about the Jaws analogy is that Hooper and Quint clearly had the skill and experience to defeat the shark, had they only learned to work together. And as I said last time, it wasn’t until the boat was sinking and the fish was circling that Quint asked “Mr. Hooper, what exactly can you do with these toys of yours.” It was too late at that point..they needed to have establish a history of collaboration to avoid the tragedy. And even though Mr Hooper jumped up as was eager to pump 50cc’s of sodium nitrate into the shark’s eye, they were all backed into a corner that they could not escape from. Hoop should have found a way to get his point across sooner and Quint should have set his ego and rigid thinking aside and focused on the work, which meant killing the stupid fish.

Find a way to connect with your organization, learn to embrace the cultural differences, and go kill a big fish.

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