Creative Inquiry | Blog

My thoughts (and others’) on managing people, strategy and design

ETC | Training Ground for Interdisciplinary Design

How do you get techies, project managers and artists to play nice? You teach them that’s the way it’s done, from the beginning.

Welcome to the ETC, the brain child of Don Marinelli and Randy Pausch. As Randy said in his now famous ‘Last Lecture‘,
” the ETC is to ‘masters degrees’ as Cirque Du Soleil is to circus” — it’s a whole different world. Truly. And not just because on the fifth floor the elevator doors open to the interior of a spaceship.

Drew Davidson, Director for the Pittsburgh campus, filled me in on their ‘break the mold’ approach to preparing students for the world of design:

Collaborative Interdisciplinary Teams

The ETC’s classes, faculty and projects all evangelize teams that:

  • collaborate to support and communicate the project’s ‘narrative’
  • build on each other’s ideas
  • take risks, explore and play together
  • support each other: listen, observe and give honest feedback

Their students drink the kool-aid.

Collective Ownership

The entire team owns every project and they’re all responsible for its success. The team is evaluated collectively on both design and production deliverables, making everyone responsible for content quality and staying on schedule.

Lesson: when everyone is responsible for everything, it becomes everyone’s job to solve problems.

Lots of Feedback

Students learn how to better support each other and communicate through regular feedback. Advisers and students meet throughout the semester to discuss their work and team member reviews.

Drew compared it to something Randy’s mentor once told him:
“Randy, it’s such a shame that people perceive you as so arrogant, because it’s going to limit what you’re able to accomplish in life.”

Integrated Education

I’d love to see more design industries adopt these practices, in our firms and in graduate education. Why aren’t architecture and engineering programs more integrated? Advertising and communications programs? I mean, you’ll be collaborating for the rest of your career…

IGDA Recap | Meeting, Hearing, Learning, Talking, Confirming

It took me a moment, but I’ve finally caught up after the IGDA’s Leadership shindig. The conference was amazing! It drew people from across the globe and I walked away with new perspectives and renewed enthusiasm. My personal highlights were:

  • Meeting lots of interesting, friendly people who made me feel very welcome. My lack of video game knowledge meant I talked to anyone and everyone, ignorant of any cool kid status.
  • Hearing from firm and team leaders that are experimenting with how they structure work, manage teams and train their leaders.
  • Learning about video game design and comparing their creative processes with other design industries.
  • Talking with people that place such a high value on developing their ability to manage people. Clearly this industry has found the value in developing leadership skills, in part because project teams are so large and complex.
  • Confirming that creative management ideas translate across creative industries by participating in conversations about team and firm management.

The most valuable part of the conference was certainly how much it expanded my network of creatives. I’m excited about the people I met and am looking forward to bringing their perspective  into this conversation about managing creative work .


Being a Better Boss Series | Communication

When I was kid we had weekly ‘family meetings’ – a product of a psychologist father and having a slew of foster kids. While I hated those meetings back then, they gave me communication skills that I carried into adulthood. Don’t get me wrong, communication is always hard. But the more you practice the easier it gets. Here are a few ways to make it less painful:

Value the relationship

If you value your relationship with someone, you want to continue to like and respect them. Think about communicating as something that does just that; it gives you an opportunity to air grievances respectfully and better understand each other.

Talk about things before you’re mad

Bring things up before they’re a huge deal:  Hey Bob, can you keep me in the loop on schedule changes in the future? It really helps me juggle my other projects better. Thanks! <smile>

By the eighth schedule change you haven’t been told about you’re probably seething. Instead, catch it on the second time when you’ve noticed it’s annoying but you’re not pissed yet.

Use humor to lighten things up a bit

My mom is a pro at this – delivering a message with a smile and a wink, my dad calls it the hit-and-run. The key is she’s always good-natured about it, not saracastic or mean-spirited. Well, maybe a wee bit sarcastic, but never mean.

Present your point of view

The quintessential use ‘I feel’ statements advice. Help them understand how their actions make you feel, so that they can empathize. For example, when feeling micromanaged I’ve said: when you check in on me this frequently it makes me feel like you don’t trust me to do my job. Which, of course, was not her intent.

Make sure it’s a two-way street

Let people know you’re open to feedback, then make sure you’re actually open to feedback – listen to what they’re saying with an open mind, don’t get defensive, and ask clarifying questions. If people know you’re really listening and trying understand, they’ll trust you enough to come back again in the future.

There you have it, some of my best communication tools. Granted there are lots of others. What communication tools do you rely on most? Or what do you struggle with when trying to communicate?

Being a Better Boss Series | Empathy

Ok, here it is kids — your first tool in the ‘be a better boss’ ( or team leader/team member/human being) toolkit: empathy

Empathy is not sympathy, not compassion, not being a push-over. It is merely the ability to understand another person’s feelings or point of view. And why does empathy make you a better boss?

Design comes with lots of interesting personalities and creative friction. When faced with a problem child, it’s easy to cast blame, ignore them or stamp your feet. But it’s more productive (albeit less comfortable) to try to get to the bottom of things.

Working under my favorite assumption — that most people want to do a good job — it’s fair to say that there’s some sort of misunderstanding between you and your problem child. First, take a deep breath and stop pointing fingers. Then, take a minute to try to understand why they’re acting the way they are. Is this a product of:

A situation? Maybe the employee in question feels frustrated, bored, micro-managed, lost, overlooked. Or maybe YOU are frustrated, bored, etc. No one deals with life well when they’re any of those things, so we cope (sometimes horribly).

Different points-of-view? Things like generational  or cultural differences make for huge misunderstandings. For example, what may be seen as needy and attention-seeking by one generation may be the communication level that seems normal when you’ve grown up in a ‘real time’ environment.

Different work styles? we all process information and do work differently. I worked with one designer who always avoided me when deadlines were looming. I thought he was just being difficult and disrespectful. Then a coworker explained that this guy could only focus on one thing at a time, “it’s like he’s eating dinner and he has to finish all the peas on his plate before he can eat his meatloaf. He doesn’t mix his food.”

Understanding the other person’s point of view helps you dial back your frustration and then modify how you’re working. In the case of the ‘all his peas’ guy, my bugging him about deliverables actually stressed him out and made him less likely to get the work done. My projects benefited from starting with a clear discussion with him about schedule expectations and changing the timing and frequency of my check-ins  (starting earlier but less often) .

Being a Better Boss (and other alliterations)

I’ve talked a lot lately about how bad management is chasing creatives from design firms, killing productivity, and keeping us from realizing our dreams. (It is also linked to the death of the last unicorn and grandma being run over by a reindeer.) So, in short, it’s bad; bad management is bad.

Most of what we call ‘bad’ management isn’t usually Bill Lumburgh-style bad though. I’m guessing very few people wake up thinking “I’m going to make so-and-so’s life difficult today”. In fact, most people want to do a good job and try to be good managers. So, how do we end up with bad bosses? How do you make sure YOU aren’t the bad boss? Or, more importantly, how do you make yourself into better boss?

To help you answer those questions, my next couple of posts will focus on ‘good’ manager skill building. We’ll talk about empathy, self-reflection and communication, and how you can use them to manage and motivate your team/staff. I think I’ll do a little something on micromanagement too. The first one will be coming at you shortly, so stay tuned…!

Fear and the Art of Creation

I’ve talked before about the importance of failure in our creative processes. But knowing that failure can be good is one thing; practicing it is something else entirely. Taking big risks promises uncertainty, judgement (of ourselves and from others) and the possibility that we might just look stupid. Anyone involved with creativity or innovation deals with these fears, myself included.

Today I came across this illustration from a talk that Chris Guillebeau and Jonathan Fields did on fear in the midst of creation:

Fear and the Art of Creation: SXSW 2011

It points at all the voices in our heads that keep us from taking risks; they can be paralyzing. But life without creativity is boring. Sitting still, waiting for things to happen, being certain — boring.

So in response, today I gave myself permission to leap. I decided to apply to two conferences, speaking about managing creativity in your company. (p.s. public speaking scares me to no end.) In the process, one of my mentors invited me to speak with him about working in teams at another conference in October. Ack! (Let’s say that’s an excited ‘ack’.) And so I have taken some baby step towards expanding this conversation about managing creativity.

What is your fear keeping you from doing? What could you do to ‘act in the face of uncertainty’? Give yourself permission, take your first baby step…

Creative Exodus: A Call to Action

In the last couple of weeks I’ve talked with three designers who already have or are planning to leave their respective design industry. In the last year? Dozens. In fact, this exodus of young designers has been part of my motivation for researching management in creative industries.

Some people just switch creative industries, others leave to become bartenders, Apple Geniuses, sculptors, musicians. But nearly all of these truly talented designers had the same reason for leaving (hint: it’s not the economy) – how they were being managed made them hate their work. It makes me sad, and worries me.

Creative industry leaders, take note!!

The future of design and your firms is quietly fleeing. Their flight may be hard to see in the midst of a recession, but in the long haul it will impact design quality and access to talented designers. Now is the time to take action, to  rethink how your firm is managing design and its people.

I…um, I mean we

This week’s episode of Project Runway (a guilty pleasure, don’t judge) was an amazing example of  “this is what you should do in a team” vs “this is what you should NOT do in a team”.

The designers were divided into two teams of five and charged with creating three fabric prints and then incorporating them into a five piece clothing collection. What ensued was a clear demonstration of the effect of team dynamics on design quality.

Team Chaos (oddly enough) benefited from having five of the more pleasant personalities and similar design aesthetics. Their inspiration — the Rorschach ink blot — was apparent in their final designs. While each person was ultimately responsible for one piece, they said that there was a bit of everyone in every piece because they worked so collaboratively. Their tasteful, cohesive collection made them the clear winners of the challenge. Yay team!

Team Nuts and Bolts suffered from two bullies while the other team members got railroaded, played peacemaker or just divested themselves completely. No one was happy with the theme they chose, and without direction the result was a hot mess. Five designers (all watching out for number one) made five individual designs, not a collection. These talented designers (four of whom have won previous challenges) became worse together. It was painful to watch.

Website Makeover

I am in the process of redesigning this site for my consulting business – Creative Inquiry.  I’m very excited about the chance to broaden this conversation and have a more direct impact on creative firms and people.

In the interim, please forgive the mess. Also, this blog is moving to I’ll update my RSS and Twitter feeds, but please be sure to update your bookmarks.


Evidence Against ‘Suits vs. Creatives’

My recent chat with Schell Games peaked my curiosity about the video game design industry and led me to some interesting research. Dr. Ethan Mollick, from University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, found that while a game’s designer certainly impacts its success (defined as revenues and critical acclaim), it is the producer who really shines.

His research eludes to the producer’s essential role in facilitating creative teams – providing motivation, helping guide design direction and making sure that great ideas are executed in a meaningful way. It’s not the producer who is the super-star, but rather that they  help the team become a collective super star. The team becomes more than a sum of its parts, it is an entity that exceeds the abilities of any one individual.

How many of you have labored under an amazing designer who is a horrible project manager or creative director? How can a team be better together when their team leader is a poor communicator, creates divisions or demotivates them? Project management should be seen is a responsibility that requires amazing people and team management skills, not a reward for being a great designer.

I believe strongly in changing how we think about and do creative work. Despite the reservations (and adamant arguments) of some, there is now a bit more proof of the benefits of creating truly integrated design experiences.