February 16, 2022

How to lead creative teams

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Creative teams are often the driving force behind the worlds greatest endeavours.

Apple, Google, Tesla, Boeing, Virgin. The list goes on.

The tricky part about leading a creative team is that traditional leadership advice won’t always work for you.

Creatives are headstrong, brilliant and wilful, but you will find they will also give you the most pushback and sometimes even heartache.

Albeit, this is a part of their magnitude.

But it can also be their downfall.

At Moonward we have many different personalities in the mix together. Asking them to work together to create amazing products has been one of my biggest learning curves in business. And I will be the first to admit, it is still a work in progress.

You see, there are two types of personalities in development: The logical and the creative.

And what I have noticed when we first started hiring team members at Moonward, is the mention of either personality type to the opposite group used to call for some major eye-rolling.

Logical teams like structure, plans and clear deliverables. They look to solve defined problems with known solutions.

Creative teams need nourishment, support and space to produce their best work. They look to provide answers that are unconventional or unknown.

When you can harness the energy of a creative team and channel it towards the right challenge, they can literally overcome anything. But if you find yourself in some of these common pitfalls, you may notice your creative team hitting a wall.

Here are a few of my tips on how leaders can unleash their creative teams to do their best work.

Provide a vision that is bigger than themselves

At Moonward, one of our team members came up with the phrase, Big Brain. We use it all the time now because I really love what these two simple words encapsulate for the team.

Big Brain is having big thoughts: thoughts that are for the future, thoughts that are creative, thoughts that are visionary. It means thinking outside the box, and even outside of the realm of what is possible.

While small challenges attract small minds, big challenges and Big Brain thinking need plenty of headspace.

Of course, not every team has the luxury of facing big challenges just yet, think Elon Musk putting people on Mars. The team need to feel like they are on a privileged mission - you need to give them a reason why.

Whether it is just reworking your own website so you can get more enquiries or creating an app that will completely revolutionise an industry, there needs to be a reason attached, and that needs to be compelling.

Think about what overcoming this problem means on a larger scale.

There are painters who transform the sun to a yellow spot, but there are others who, with the help of their art and their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into sun.”
Pablo Picasso

A creative team is always better than a creative individual

Good ideas need collaboration.

Although on the surface it might look like all the best ideas sprung from just one brilliant mind, it’s rare to come up with an idea completely on ones own. Think about JK Rowling and Harry Potter, her story was a melting pot of conversations she had overheard, people she was exposed to and experiences throughout her life.

Here’s a pic of me outside of the Elephant House Cafe in Edinburgh just for fun.

I love you JK Rowling. My idol.

Hearing insights from others can lead to creating better ideas. You do not want to create the personality type of the ‘Brilliant Jerk,’ where only one person can voice their ideas. You want a team where all ideas are given a chance to breathe.

It is also important to create an environment and safe space where your team can collaborate together. At Moonward we have a boardroom with floor to ceiling whiteboards, a big TV screen (and PS5 lol), some comfy seats and plenty of sticky notes.

When facing big challenges or at the start of a project, the team are encouraged to go into their safe space for at least half to a full day of collaboration. I know some businesses find it hard to justify this amount of work away from the desk, but it is important to solve problems upfront, rather than down the garden trail.

This space is also an opportunity for creatives to fail and chuck out idea’s in a controlled environment before they go into production.

Lead by influence rather than direct control

I have been lucky in this respect as I am a creative individual. I’m a reader. I’m a writer. I like to imagine. I like to daydream. I like to evolve things in ways that are not conventional.

Because of this, I am a kindred spirit with my fellow creatives. I understand most of the time, what motivates them and I also understand what can hinder their abilities.

I understand the creative process is full of ups and downs and sometimes brilliance is death by one thousand cuts instead of some big bang moment.

When you use direct control to create outcomes within your team, they won’t be fully committed to the project.

When you use influence, you open up the conversation early. You are there to share what you know with the team and get their buy in to create an amazing product. You will either influence your team through your own experiences, or you’ll learn and help them refine their thought process.

Please note the influence is something that comes with time, trust and transparency.

Create systems that are structured but not restrictive

If you micro-manage creativity, you kill it. Simple as that.

As a boss, you understand that budgets, deadlines and feasibility are significant contributions to the running of your business. And often you will find that creatives will push for things that don’t necessarily satisfy your hunger as a boss - after all you are there to minimise risks and deliver predictable results.

But as a creative leader, you know that their work is not monotonous or robotic. Their output is very much based on their own journey.

What matters is finding the balance between allowing people creative freedom, while still maintaining control of the output.

I have created output milestones with every project that we have following this exact same structure. The team knows that they need to deliver scope, user flows, brand, high fidelity prototypes on a schedule. But within that timeframe, how the creative team reach their conclusion is up to them.

They know that it is their expectation to hit their output milestones and maintain momentum on their project, this also cuts down the guess work and takes out any thinking that takes them away from their creativity. But they also have freedom within these output milestones to reach a conclusion in a way that isn’t suffocating.

Final Thoughts

As a creative leader, you also have to be creative.

The type of creativity that is more about facilitating, coordinating and directing the efforts of others. This is the same creativity as a conductor, film director and record producer.

When you are facilitating, you don’t get to do all the finer details, and often you will never see the limelight. But you do get to shape the bigger picture.

Leading a creative team is all about providing a big vision for your team to use Big Brain thoughts on, encouraging collaboration, leading by influence and creating systems that are structured but not restrictive.

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