A response to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzik’s “Seven Rules for Managing Creative People”
In last week’s “Seven Rules for Managing Creative People” on the Harvard Business Review blog, Tomas Chamorro legitimately upset a lot of people in the design industry. I have been thinking about the post for over a week and finally was able to approach it with what I hope are constructive thoughts.
Chamorro’s provocative and potentially incendiary language perpetuates the myth that the design community is made up of temperamental, childlike artists who demand special treatment. Sadly, this approach obscures some insights into leading a design organization.
Editorial Note: Throughout this post, I use the term “designers” rather than the outdated and loaded term “creatives.” I assume Chamorro was talking about the design community, and (NSFW) I’m not the only one.
I believe the stereotypical “temperamental designer” is a myth. In my experience, under good leadership most designers don’t need any special treatment or considerations beyond the managerially mundane: e.g., faster computers if they do processor-intensive work. My advice to leaders of designers is to think about whether your staff is doing production work or design work and act accordingly. More on that below.
I am not questioning Chamorro’s credentials or his research, only his approach. In fact I applaud him for referencing academic studies.
So, without any further ado, behold Chamorro’s rules, Charron-style:
Provide Room To Experiment
This replaces Chamorro’s “Spoil them and let them fail.” There’s plenty of anecdotal and quantitative research out there that shows the most innovative groups succeed through experimentation. This isn’t a new concept, and it’s something each new worker brings to the table in their own way. I don’t get Chamorro’s advice to “spoil them.” I don’t see anything in his evidence that supports the idea that spoiling one group of employees over another, regardless of their role, will get you any advantage. As employees’ achievements pile up, they deserve more trust and—dare I say it—more privileges.
Design is a different job than other jobs. Folks in a production role should avoid failure like the plague. Folks in a design role should understand how experimentation works and not be punished when a reasonable, well planned experiment fails—as long as they learn from it.
Strive For Diverse Teams
Instead of Chamorro’s “Surround them by semi-boring people,” focus on how you pick your teams. Diverse teams find better solutions to problems. We’re not talking solely about traditional EEO diversity; diversity of thought, background and skill sets are all-important to team dynamics.
“Boring” is too subjective to be constructive. Start talking to me about hockey and my eyes will glaze over, but ask me about the electoral college and I’ll ramble on for hours. Others will have the opposite reaction. That doesn’t make either of us boring.
So, strive for intellectual diversity on your teams and encourage them to use divergent and convergent thinking methods. Also, make sure teams know their input is welcome, but each team member has a domain over which they make decisions and execute. For instance, the best project managers I’ve worked with get involved in design, but they are ultimately responsible for keeping the entire team up-to-date on the schedule, budget and milestones. These are not, as Chamorro puts it, “mundane executional processes” or “dirty work.” They’re important and designers may struggle without someone in that role. Trust me, I struggle without a good PM. When I find one, I want to work with them indefinitely.
Eliminate Meaningless Work
Chamorro’s recommendation, “Only involve them in meaningful work” implies there’s meaningless work in your organization. Ask any business leader, “Where does the meaningful work get done?” and their response should be, “Everywhere. If anyone is focusing on anything meaningless, I’d fire them.”
Everyone wants to know that the work they do counts for something, not just designers. Now, there are mundane, trivial tasks that we do every day, but they should have a purpose. When tasks get in the way of people focusing on the value they provide to the organization, find ways to minimize or eliminate those tasks. For instance, if your traveling consultants take four hours each week filling out expense reports and booking travel, hire an admin for your consulting department to deal with that stuff. It’s not that the admin will be doing meaningless work, he’s freeing up your consultants so they can bill more hours. It’s just good business.
Get Out Of Their Hair
This is not too different than Chamorro’s “Don’t pressure them” because I largely agree with what Chamorro is saying. I like that an academic is using Mad Men as an example for how to manage people. I’ve used it myself. It’s not a true case study, but it’s clear from that show that the writers have a grip on some of the realities of the design industry.
Chamorro’s point centers around the notion that you should not force unnecessary processes or structures on design teams. I completely agree and this—again—comes down to good project management.
As Ferran Adrià says, ”There is a difference between creativity and production.” If you’re forcing your people into a process-for-process’s sake, they’re not designing anything. They’re executing a process. In the end, stay out of their hair and let them do their job. They’re better at some things than you are, that’s why you hired them. If you’re a manager or a business owner and you don’t know this, you are probably struggling more than you care to admit.
Pay Them A Competitive Salary
Nothing attracted more ire from the design community than the terrible advice to “Pay them poorly.” In his twitter feed and in the comments section on the post, Chamorro tried to justify this as a “metaphor” for “Don’t overpay them.” I think he was trying to be provocative, but it backfired, and rightfully so.
We have known for years that money alone is a poor motivator for good work. This doesn’t mean you should be cheap with your design staff—quite the contrary. Good design talent is worth the money and good designers know it. Pay them what’s competitive in your market, make sure they have rewarding and challenging work and they are likely to stay. If you consciously underpay them and they don’t leave, I’d question how valuable they are to begin with. Fair Pay + Rewarding Work = Higher Retention. Take away one of the variables and you throw off the balance. When you think it’s time to throw money at the issue, it’s usually too late.
Provide A Continuous Stream Of Challenging, Rewarding Work
The title of Chamorro’s rule, “Surprise them,” isn’t the issue. Everything in the description generalizes designers with behaviors I have never witnessed. Chamorro says creatives “take a different route to work every day, even if it gets them lost, and never repeat an order at a restaurant, even if they really liked it.” He has never been to lunch or carpooled with anyone at Think Brownstone. His examples seem more literary tools than facts.
I may take the same route to work every day, but that is production work. For design work, I prefer to be challenged. Earlier in my career, I could lay down code, write scripts, or document requirements for days-on-end. Once it became routine, I got bored and found other work that I enjoyed. I was lucky enough to work where successful employees could find new challenges. I carried that practice on to my staff when I started managing people.
It takes time to get to that point in a career, but once you get there, you want others to follow. If anyone is in a rut and pigeonholed in your organization with no way out, they’ll leave.
Recognize Good Work Immediately And Often
Chamorro’s “Make them feel important” rings of the type of condescension that people smell from a mile away. Guess what—they are important. So is everyone who provides a service within your organization.
If you are not focused on recognizing good work, you’re probably way busier dealing with turnover. It doesn’t matter if you’re managing McDonald’s or Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. If every member of your organization is not important and doesn’t feel like they’re contributing something important, you’re wasting your money. You’re doing it wrong.
If You See Any Signs Of Clinical Psychopathy, Get Them Help
Chamorro’s connection between corporate innovators and psychopaths is academic to the point of being misleading and—again—intended more to provoke a reaction from the community than to provide any managerial guidance. It also undermines the importance of helping those who have legitimate problems.
I’m a chronic list maker. Vacations, my wedding, meal plans – you name it – I’ve probably made a list or spreadsheet for it. As a program manager, my preferred method for organizing my work tasks is a modification of the Pomodoro Method. In short, I keep a large master to-do list and whenever a task pops in my head, I don’t start that task – instead I put it on the list. Each day I make a “today” subset of the list on a sticky note and cross out completed items throughout the day.
Before you tell me you know of a great app that would simplify my workflow, let me stop you – I don’t want to use it. While I use Evernote for my master lists, I prefer my post-it note solution day-to-day. There are probably hundreds of to-do list applications ready for download, but logging into something or taking the time to type out my daily list is just a bad user experience for me. Will I ever need an electronic archive of my daily to-do list? The option to search it for key words? The ability to share it through Twitter? Probably not.
A handwritten note can be an interesting artifact as well. Though I don’t need to access an archive of my previous sticky note musings, it can be interesting to run across an old vacation packing list, or an old shopping list in a coat pocket. Also, a study showed that writing by hand has cognitive benefits for children. Writing with a pen and paper actually uses more brain processes than typing. Are you typing so often that your handwriting is atrocious? Try penmanship exercises to make your to-do list more legible. (This woman in particular has me aspiring to have more consistent penmanship.)
It turns out I’m not the only 1.0 fan out there. During a recent research project during which we were tasked to interview users and identify ways to improve their workflow I met a salesperson who quipped that it didn’t make sense to log into a system to enter information and track it when they could do it much faster and more easily by writing the information down on a sheet of paper.
We experience low-tech being far superior to high-tech on a daily basis. Sometimes the best way is the simplest. What are your favorite low-tech solutions to use when a high-tech solution is also available?
Often starting in Q4 and leading into Q1, many of our clients ask us to help them with visioning exercises. The beginning of the year is a good time for an activity like this. It’s a good time to reflect back on your accomplishments, investigate the things you slipped on, consider what part of your offerings you may want to retire and plan for the future. Your staff also may be a little more relaxed, which helps open their minds to think about the future of your organization — not just for the coming year, but several years out.
But what is visioning, aside from the horrible verbalization of an otherwise useful noun? Rather than go deep into the strategy of visioning and technology, I thought I’d give the perspective of a couple of seemingly unrelated industries that we’ve turned to for inspiration.
Visioning and Fashion
A few years ago, Russ, Brad and I had the opportunity to consult with the merchandising group of a major department store chain. Part of our job is to learn how our clients do business, so we spent a lot of time with buyers and merchandisers to understand how they get their work done. One day, I was “walking the floor” of a store with a buyer and I joked about Haute Couture and its irrelevance to the retail fashion industry. As an outsider, it’s difficult to understand the connection between the fashion shows where waiflike models are wearing tiaras made of pigeon bones and the latest line of salesvests at your local men’s shop.
My guide explained to me that those fashion shows are critical to their industry on many levels. High fashion is the designer’s sandbox. On the runway, she can explore new ideas without the constraints of practicality or commercial success. Well-accepted ideas gain a buzz, which are then picked up by the commercial side of the business and become trends. She pointed to a rack of women’s blouses that had small, shiny specks woven into the fabric. “Two years ago, some designer in Paris, Milan or New York probably designed a dress made of out chrome or chain mail or something glittery. By the next fashion show, other designers were exploring metallic fabrics. The following year, every designer’s line was using fabrics with metallic threads woven into it. Merchandisers named the trend ‘shine.’ Now you can walk through every women’s clothing department in the world and you’ll see ‘shine.’ Our customers expect shine this season, and if our store doesn’t have it, they’ll walk out. If a merchandiser missed it, it means losing millions in revenue.”
The runway is the fashion designer’s version of visioning. Seemingly impractical ideas plant seeds that are explored and refined. Nobody in the fashion world expected women to be wearing chain mail sundresses next summer, but they’re using that sandbox to discover something different. What they put on the racks in two years may have no discernable connection to the original inspiration, but it is there and it’s necessary.
Visioning in the Auto Industry
Ever been to a car show? Somewhere beyond the glaring lights, cheap suits and scantily-clad models, there are a few cars in the convention center. Many of these are what the industry calls concept cars. These vehicles may look good, but they’ll never see a highway. In fact, some of them don’t even have engines or are made of clay. Most of these cars are actually destroyed after the show season.
So, with an auto industry that is constantly battling bankruptcy, why are they wasting their shareholders’ money making things they know they’ll never use or sell? Part of it is marketing, but much more of it is to generate ideas and explore the future of their industry.
Much of the concept car is about prototyping. It’s way cheaper to get some of your designers and engineers together to build a concept car than it is to get a car to production that you’re not sure is going to sell. One industrial engineer wants to move the cupholder to the door to free up space on the dash. Everyone thinks that’s a great idea, but once you build it you learn your Super Big Gulp lands all over your lap when you shut the door. But that gets the engineering neurons firing and the next thing you know, we have real cars with Camelback-inspired drink pockets and integrated straws.
Visioning and UX
In the corporate world, it’s cliche to gather a group of people in a room and say, “there are no bad ideas.” The point in saying that is to discourage others from immediately poo-pooing an idea just because it hasn’t been done yet. Chances are, every single person in your organization has some seed of an idea they’ve been chewing on for the past twelve months — a solution to a problem, a new product idea, or a different approach to your business. You can be the best leader in the world, but when you’re rushing to get something to market or busy putting out fires, you may not be as receptive to their ideas as you want to be.
An easy way to justify visioning exercises it is to assume your competition has already done it. Their models have already walked the runway in double-breasted overalls. Their unicycle hybrid cars have already been shown in Vegas. Right now their designers and engineers are busy building something practical and sellable based on those ideas. They will be known as the leaders in the industry while you’re busy chasing their lead.
It’s unfortunate that we need to take a break from work to figure out how to make work better, but that’s a necessary reality of the business world. When we facilitate these sessions, we purposefully show examples from other industries to help people’s minds wander. It isn’t a complicated process; the hardest part of it is finding the time and getting people to think about their Concept Car rather than venting about the latest office upheaval.