Getting the Most out of Managing Creative Talent Without Micromanaging Them
Creators hate to be micromanaged.
I've hired dozens, if not hundreds, of creatives—photographers, videographers, illustrators and other creative types—so I’ve really had to consider how to manage creators so that I get the best possible result and they have a great experience working with me so they want to continue to collaborate on important projects in the future.
At the same time, founders hate to give up control.
You can’t do everything yourself, but you still want everything to be done well. So, it’s easy to get too involved, try to be too helpful, and then end up neck-deep in a project that you thought you had outsourced to someone else.
Even if you’ve never had a problem with micromanagement before, letting someone else execute your creative vision (often on something really important) creates new challenges for entrepreneurs and leaders.
3 signs you're micromanaging creatives:
- You message your employees at all hours of the day or night. You want to know how things are going, so you check in…frequently. The problem is that creative types need time and space to do deep work. If you’re pinging them on Slack or in Telegram, if you’re emailing or texting for updates, you’re not allowing a creator to be their most productive.
- You need to approve every single thing that goes out. You're reading every email. You're signing off on every color choice or design change. You're approving every little drop of creativity before the creator can move forward. Though it takes time to build trust with any employee let alone a creative one, if you have enough confidence to hire someone, then you should (eventually) have enough confidence to give them the autonomy and agency to make decisions.
- You’re never really happy with the result. Nothing ever feels just right. You always find small details that you want to change even after you ship, and you’re always slightly dissatisfied with the work product even if it achieves the desired outcomes. And watch out if something goes wrong - whew! - you immediately point fingers at your creative employees or they point fingers at each other. Nobody's really taking responsibility and this perpetuates this problem of micromanagement.
The worst part about micromanaging creatives is that everyone ends up frustrated.
The creative professional can’t do their best work, and you’re not happy with that person or the outcome. What’s doubly disappointing is that creative projects are supposed to be fun!
So what should you do instead?
3 Things to Do Instead:
1. Spend more time up front on an aligned vision.
My number one strategy for working with creative types is to spend way more time upfront than you think.
Seth Godin gave a great talk about a concept he calls “thrashing,” which he describes as the time spent upfront working through the project, sharing ideas, getting aligned, really just planning the work that's going to be done.
If you’re working on a creative project, thrashing (and plenty of it) is absolutely essential.
Instead of spending a lot of time upfront getting on the same page, leaders expect that “doing the work” will take 90% of the time and often send a creative person to start on something without really sitting down together and envisioning what it is they’re creating.
Then, when the creative comes back with ideas rather than a first take on the project itself, and the boss (aka you) says, “that’s not what I was looking for,” it turns into another brainstorming session, and the project moves forward much more slowly than it should.
So what you really want to do is create a phase at the start of every project, more time than you think.
You can use mood boards, inspiration from other creators, or anything else you need to align.
Then (and only then) should you shift into a phase of letting the creative do their thing.
When I hire someone, I always tell them upfront,
“We're going to spend as much time as we need to sync up on what the vision is, and then I'm going to let you off on your own. I'm going to disappear from view because it's your time to own this project and run with it.”
2. Hire creators to do what they already do best.
The second most important thing is to hire people who already know how to successfully do what it is that you're hoping to achieve.
Here’s an example. Say you want to get a graffiti-style mural painted on a big wall, and there’s an artist you like a lot who's got a very fun, loose, sketchy type style.
The easiest thing to do is to go to that person and say, “Hey, I've seen the last 50 walls that you've painted, and I love the work that you've already done. I want you to do that exact style, just do it for me in this context.”
You’re not asking that artist to be somebody different. You’re not asking them to come up with a different set of skills. You’re just asking them to do what they do best on behalf of your company and your project.
And if you do that, if you trust that they're going to get the thing done the right way because you've seen the evidence, you can relax because you know even before the project begins that the person is capable of executing.
3. Feedback is about Process, not just Product:
The third strategy I use is to remember that feedback is most productive when it's about a process change that can happen the next time you do a project.
What happens when you've done the two first steps, but you still feel like what the creator comes back with is not what you’re looking for? Your first instinct might be to point out the specifics about what’s not good or what you don’t like, but that’s not as instructive for future work, future iterations, and getting the project across the finish line.
What to do instead? Frame your feedback not as a discussion of the product but rather as a discussion of the process.
Let's say you're working on a new website. You aligned with the designer on the vision upfront, you've seen their work, and it’s exactly what you’ve imagined. But then they come back to you with a home page and a mockup of the rest of the site, and you don’t love the colors, fonts, or illustrations. You’re disappointed because they didn’t really get you or what you wanted.
Instead of saying, “I wish the background colors were more neutral” or “there’s too much white space on the portfolio page,” say instead, “What is it that we can change about our process that will help you deliver both your best work and something that makes me happy too?”
You can follow up with questions like:
- Did I get enough material and inspiration to you upfront?
- Do we not have enough options available for you to choose from?
- Was I not clear enough in my instruction?
So instead of playing the blame game, you're taking some of the responsibility for a less-than-optimal output, asking process-related questions, and creating an environment that supports the creator in moving forward with confidence and clarity.
You can avoid micromanaging and make the necessary space for creatives to succeed. However...
Even if everyone has the best intentions, sometimes things just aren’t a good fit, and a relationship isn’t the best collaboration.
So you should find somebody else. That's totally okay too.
Hiring, managing, working with creators, and often being a creator yourself is one of the biggest challenges for leaders.
But if we want to create our best work and continue to grow, we have to give others the space to do their best work and to continue to grow.
If you've any questions about micromanagement, something that you experienced, how to get the best out of your employees, or something I didn't really touch on in this post, drop me a note.
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