The first thing we need to look at when talking about leading creative teams is what a “creative team” actually is.
When you hear those two words, you think of a marketing team, or a product design team, but is that really the case?
If you just rephrase it, a “creative team” becomes “a group of people working together to make something up from nothing” – and that can apply to any team, not just marketers or designers. That team could very well be a business unit doing their annual brainstorming for all we know.
So here’s the first piece of insight: being a creative team is not about what you do, its about acting like one.
In other words, being a creative team is a behavioural issue , and we can expect to see more of this behaviour the more we need to lead teams working in new ways to foster innovation and remain competitive.
And like in everything: there are good behaviours and bad behaviours – and leading creative teams means first and foremost to tell the difference between those two.
We mentioned brainstorming, so let’s stick to it for a moment. There is a study (Mullen et al 2010) that looked precisely at what effects different bad behaviours have in brainstorming groups and identified the most critical ones.
For example, they looked at the effects of behaviours like:
interrupting each other often and not letting others speak;
maintaining social tensions within the group;
freeloading – i.e. having people that just stay in the back and don’t say anything, don’t participate and bring the morale down.
When they measured the impact that each team behavior had on the creative process, they found that most of them had a minor one.
All except for one: social tensions.
What they found was a striking difference in terms of outcome between teams that had little to no social tensions in the group and others that instead had them. The creative teams free of social pressures largely outperformed the others!
What this means is that even the simple inhibition coming from not wanting to say something stupid in front of your boss holds an incredibly disruptive potential, so unless we remove those social pressures, no creative process can succeed in full.
Why is that so? You must be wondering. The answer comes from another study that researched how good, creative ideas come to life.
Social tensions and Creativity
Simply put, there is a link between the quantity of ideas you generate on a topic and their creative quality: the higher the quantity of ideas you have, the more creative ideas you have. (Kudrowitz, 2010).
The reason is simple: given any topic and the task to come up with ideas, the first few ones you will have are going to be low-hanging fruits – i.e. ideas that anyone on the planet could easily have.
When you run out of the easy grabs, though, you need to come up with new stuff, and that’s when your brain starts working: it’s the ideas that come out of that work that are the really creative ones, the ones you really want to have during brainstorming.
If everyone pushes himself this way during a session, you will end up with a lot more material on the board – and more material to work with means more connections to be made between very distant concepts, and a higher possibility of finding a creative solution to whatever you’re tackling at the time.
If that is true, your role as the leader becomes to tackle those social pressures, and make sure your team members are comfortable in saying pretty much anything in front of each other.
Of course it does: this is a monumental task…
Social Pressure and Creative Confidence: 4 Fears
Leading creative teams is not just about facilitating a meeting and saying “don’t judge others” – it’s about working in the background and making the relationships between your team members better.
So, how to do it? If we enlarge the scope from the specifics of brainstorming to a larger creative process like Design Thinking, we have some interesting points we can use.
David Kelley and Tom Kelley of IDEO came up with the term “creative confidence”, i.e. “the natural ability to come up with new ideas and the courage to try them out” (Kelley et al. 2012)– which is ultimately what you want your team to do.
Interestingly, together with that definition and based on their work, they also identified four fears that prevent people from fully tapping into their creative potential.
Knowing them can be a good starting point for you to tackle this monumental task, so here they are.
1 – The fear of the messy unknown
We like to work with what we know, and we don’t like facing uncertainty, therefore, we fear what we don’t know: the unknown.
That said, if we knew the ins and outs of what we need to generate ideas about… well, we wouldn’t be in that position in the first place! In order for a creative team to ideate on a topic, the team members need to understand that topic first – and the only way to do it is to step into it.
Think customer interviews, to put it in practical terms.
Your job then, is to encourage people to be curious about the unknown instead of afraid, and push them to do so by going in there and learning on the field.
2 – The fear of the first step
People are afraid of an empty space. Think about when you had to write an essay in high school… Starting, writing the first word was absolutely terrifying!
Once you get past that, things become a lot easier – so encourage your creative team to take the first step, and start getting those early, non-creative ideas out of the way.
Once you lead your creative team into starting the process, and keep them involved enough to reach their creative ideas, you’ve already got a good case on your hands.
3 – The fear of losing control
We like being in control: being in control of a situation makes the situation known, and that makes us feel safe, and we like to be safe.
That is also why we have a tendency to protect our ideas: they are ours, we know how to control them, and we feel safe keeping those on the table instead of trusting someone else’s.
However, we do it even if our ideas are bad – safety, is a very powerful instinct (check out this article for more on leadership and safety).
Your role, then, is to enable sufficient trust in your creative team to help everyone be more light-hearted in let going of their ideas and supporting others – again, not something you can do in a single meeting!
4 – The fear of being judged
This is the most fundamental one for me. The fear of being judged is essentially the cause of all the social tension you have in creative teams – and your biggest problem in leading creative teams.
We saw how much damage this fear alone can do, so if you ask me that’s the point you should be working on from day one: if you remove the fear of being judged from the group and cultivate a culture of celebrating failures and mutual support you will have a creative powerhouse on your hands.
This, however, doesn’t mean saying “don’t judge others” or “defer judgement” before you start an ideation process – saying it is one thing, leading creative teams into wanting to do it for real is something else, and much more work!
How to Lead Creative Teams
My main point is that if you want to lead creative teams, you need to work on the people in that team, and enable them to have the best possible relationships with each other, so cultivate humour, failure, transparency, mutual support.
I am fully aware that those are basic skills that can make us better in life, and perhaps you think that it’s not your job as the team leader to educate people… but I disagree: enabling your creative team to be better at those skills is the key to unlocking their creative potential, and that is in turn leading creative teams.
Creative processes, like Brainstorming or Design Thinking are important as well, don’t get me wrong, but they are just a tool – and any tool needs people able to use it if you want it to be used well.