Creative people can make enormous contributions to any organization, but are often difficult to motivate, manage, and channel.  They resist authority. Their thought patterns are unpredictable. They are highly sensitive and usually require high maintenance.

Here are a few managerial suggestions for handling creative talent in a way that maximizes their contribution … and minimizes your headaches. I’ll be using copywriters and web designers as examples, but the principles apply to creative people serving in any capacity.

Preparation

Kick off every new project by giving the creative team the big picture. Even if a writer or designer is handling only a mere fragment of the project, he/she will feel utterly lost without a solid understanding of the context. What is the objective? What is the audience? What are the key messaging points? Why is this project important to the company? Don’t share this information on a need-to-know basis; instead, err on the side of over explaining.

It’s equally important to not hamstring creatives with detailed, restrictive, and/or idiosyncratic creative guidelines. Besides driving creatives to distraction, this type of micromanagement in and of itself diminishes the quality of the work.

For example, in the world of website development, a client may arbitrarily demand a particular font. If that font is difficult to read, the designer must either fight an uncomfortable creative battle or follow instructions that compromise the effectiveness of the new site.  This is a losing proposition for the designer, the employer, and most important, the visitor to the new site.

Creative people produce the best work when they understand the objectives, and are then given the freedom to create.

Review

At work, we try not to take things personally: after all, it’s “just business.”  However, there is no escaping the fact that for creatives, work is personal, and can never be just business.

This presents a delicate problem for managers in terms of reviewing a creative’s work. On the one hand, managers who are oblivious will offend the creative so deeply that he/she may quit on the spot. On the other hand, managers who treat the creative with kid gloves will get substandard work, because like everyone else, creatives need feedback and criticism to bring out their best.

With all this in mind, be straightforward and reasonable when providing feedback. Don’t say things like, “I showed this brochure to my wife and she hated it.”  Unless your wife is an award-winning marketer, this sort of feedback won’t carry a shred of credibility – and certainly won’t give the designer a clue about how to improve the design.

On the other hand, if you say, “The imagery of this brochure seems to resonate with a young audience, but our target market is seniors,” you have set the foundation for a constructive creative discussion.

Also keep in mind that most creatives, in my experience at least, are open to criticism. In my own case, I expect to be challenged. In fact, when criticism is absent, I worry that when my work is published it will contain some flaw that undermines the success of the project. It is a lack of criticism, rather than its presence, that can really rattle a writer or designer.

General

Professional creatives are able to able to meet deadlines and produce quality work even when they are not “inspired.” You should expect nothing less. That said, the more you facilitate creative thinking, the better your results will be.

Environmental factors strongly influence the quality of creative work. I would certainly want my creative staff to have optimum lighting and workspace comfort, each to his or her preference. I’d also be liberal with work hours: if someone wants to knock out a design at 2 AM, I’m willing to pay for that and encourage it. Within reason, I’d let them take breaks whenever they need a break and wear whatever clothing floats their creative boat.

Many managers and executives will cringe at what I just said, seeing it as the road to chaos. It is indeed credible to say that you can’t have one set of rules of creatives and another set of rules for everyone else. If that’s true, my vote is for liberalizing the workplace. Let’s remember that everyone is creative to one extent or another, so why stifle someone – anyone — who might otherwise come up with your next million-dollar idea?