How to Manage Creative People

Here is an excerpt from my book Digital Leadership.

How to Manage Creative People

Creativity is a mystery, as is love. If you’re managing creative people and you want the best out of them, you need to let go of many preconceptions about how people ‘are’. New innovations and creative ideas will come alive if you are creating an environment that is helping people to show off their creativity. You have to create space for the creativity mystery to exist and let go of many of your own insecurities that you might feel inside you. These insecurities might stop yourself and the people you work with to perform your best as a team. 

I would recommend you read the book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [HarperCollins 1996]. He makes some good points in it about creativity, creative people and flow. It is his research about flow that made him know to me many years ago.

According to Csikszentmihalyi [1996]:

  • Creative people have a lot of physical energy and they do take time to rewind and relax. Their energy level can be totally different from day to day.
  • Creative individuals tend to be smart but at the same time naïve.
  • Creative people are both playful and disciplined at the same time.
  • Creative people are full of imagination and they have a gut feeling for what’s around the corner. Being able to use your fantasy and imagination whilst being rooted in reality is a trait of creative individuals.
  • When a person who is fully using their creative abilities is developing an idea, they tend to be introverted for a period of time. Then when the new creative idea is developed, they want to go out and meet other people and share the idea with them. Creative people are both introverted and extroverted.

His research shows that it’s important for us to not judge people too quickly; you never know if you are working with a creative genius. All people have some sort of talent and if you want them to share these with you, you need to treat people well and accept them as they are.

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I believe one of the most dangerous things you can do in any human relationship is to place someone in a box: you are like that; you always do this; typical you... When you are putting people in a box, it’s not good for their creativity or flow, and neither is it good for yours.

Love, people and relationships are all big mysteries. Treat them nicely and you’ll get much more in return.

How to manage and keep geeks happy 

Some of the most creative companies in the world were created by geeks. Remember Apple, Pixar and the like. IT and digital teams are very dependent on experts — geeks, programmers and developers who’ll create magic solutions for your website and digital tools. To keep them happy, it’s even more important for you to know about the creative process and how to handle ideas. I’ve worked with a lot of different people and some of them have been a bit geekier than others and often they were very proud to be geeks.

I don’t think it’s a big difference between managing geeks and other staff members, but you should be aware that those geeks who don’t think your web environment is interesting enough are likely to move on pretty swiftly.

You always want your team members to perform their best, to come up with great solutions to all your problems. If the geeks don’t like you, they will not come up with the best solution. And you’ll not provide your customers with the best solution. If the geeks find you annoying as a leader, they are more likely than any other employees to leave your organisation.

Very geeky people can be introvert, and you might not have super social conversations with them. The reality is that some people are more introvert and some people talk too much. That’s life. You as a leader have to adopt your style and be nice to everyone in your team. That will help you, and people will step forward to work with you.

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“You can’t tell a software developer what to do. You’re paying them for inventing new things. Not managing the details in their work.”  Zoe Cunningham

Training is always a valuable tool if you wish to keep your geeky team members happy. Most people love to learn new stuff, especially knowledge hungry geeks. Give them free programming books on Amazon. Let them use and improve their skills as much as possible.

I’m a bit geeky myself and I was once hired to work in the web department but ended up doing mostly administration. I moved on and got a new job.

Smart people want to work with other smart people and be in a team that gets on socially. Make sure that good communication processes are set up and that the entire team knows how and where communication can be shared. Remote working will also help keep your team members happy.

One great way to give compliments to your team is to make your team members shine in front of others. They will love you for that, even if they don’t say it out loud. The simple truth is that we all want to work with people who make us feel great and valuable — geeky or not. But in the world of digital you have to work well with geeks because they have mind power over the magic solutions that will help you make money in the future.

To keep a creative environment alive you need to avoid the HIPO syndrome as much as possible. This stands for Highest Income Person’s Opinion or the person with most power. If you make technical decisions based on advice from a non-techie then the developers won’t do a good job.

A huge global company chose to go with an old enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution five years ago. They made big investments and started the implementation. One year into the project it turned out that Oracle stopped upgrading and supporting the solution they had bought. They lost several technical people and a lot of enthusiasm in the project. Nobody wanted to work with a technical system that had very little support and development in the future.

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Why do you think they were finding themselves in this situation? The management didn’t listen to the advice they got from the technical developers. If they had done that, they would have invested in another ERP product. To listen to feedback and an ability to learn are musts for creative leaders.

Learn from the leaders around you

I’ve been to many networking events and I’ve even written a business thesis on the subject of networking and professional development. Look at your network, all the people you know. Who has had most impact in your life? Who has helped you to move forward? Who has opened new doors for you?

Is it the world’s famous heroes who have been influencing you? Is it the amazing people winning awards and prizes for their talents, such as the Oscar and Noble Peace Prize winners?

No, it is not the famous heroes who make the biggest mark in our lives. It’s our family, teachers and friends who are shaping us. Your identity is shaped by the people you meet and what happens to you. We’re our stories, and they are shaping us and how we see the world around us, how we think, how we move forward and how we deal with our challenges.

I’ve had a handful of people who have influenced me a lot. And I’ll always be grateful for having them in my life; you’re the best teachers I possibly could have had.

Be grateful for the people you have met. Be grateful for what you’ve learnt. Be grateful for all great teachers you’ve had so far. And keep your door open to let new people into your life.

And by the way, who remembers any of the Noble Prize winners from last year? (I don’t remember a single one…)