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How to Manage Performance for Creative Work

If performance management is all about driving continuous improvement in productivity and quality—and helping employees strike a balance toggling back and forth between speed and mindfulness—where does creative work fit into the puzzle?

We know that creative work can be extremely valuable. But how can you possibly performance-manage creativity? How long should it take to come up with an idea? How do you measure whether the idea is good, very good, or excellent?

We typically think of artists, entertainers, writers, inventors, and designers as creative. But there is always the potential to inject creativity into almost any task, responsibility, or project—into any action. Digging a ditch can be creative work, if the ditch digger has the right circumstances, inspiration, and support. Of course, the ditch still must be dug, and on time. That’s the rub.

 
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There are always parameters, even for the most creative work

There are always parameters, for any work, and that includes creative work. A longtime television industry veteran once told me, “Take the writers on a sitcom. They are engaged in a highly creative process. But they have to keep each teleplay inside the twenty-four minutes. They have to work within the characters and backstory of the show. At the end of the day, they need to get a show written, and then write another one. And then another.”

Yes, some jobs are more creative than others. But even the most creative jobs have three elements in common with other work:

  1. A goal—purpose, required outcome, or at least a desired result
  2. A timeframe or an intended structure
  3. Parameters—the things that are and are not within the creative’s control

If you are managing people whose work does not include these three elements, I only have this advice: let your great artist create and let the market decide. For everyone else, when you are managing creatives, these three elements are your toolkit.

 
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Do your creative employees a favor

The biggest favor you can do for employees doing creative work is keep reminding them of all the stuff that is not within their creative discretion. Take the sitcom example. In every episode, the story must have a beginning, middle, and end. The main character has to want something, be denied it, try even harder, and in the end either get that something or not. That’s the desired outcome. There must be four six-minute acts—that’s the structure and timeframes.

Sometimes, you as the manager may not have a clear goal. Yet. So, you are sending this employee on a creative goose chase of sorts, an exploration. Maybe this is part of your own creative process: you want something to look at, something that might help you imagine what the goal really should be.

If that is what you are doing, then you need to be very clear about that with the employee (and yourself) from the outset. Explain exactly what you have in mind, include the employee in the process. Make it vividly clear to the employee what you do know about the assignment and what role you want them to play in it.

 
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Fine tune your 1:1s for creative work

In regular, ongoing 1:1 conversations with your creative employees, or when discussing the creative aspects of an employee’s work:

  1. Remember that parameters, timeframes, structure, and clear desired outcomes are gifts to anybody doing creative work. At the outset of a creative project, it can seem like anything is possible and everything is on the table. That’s daunting because it makes the creative process into one agonizing choice after another. Always make it clear what is not within the employee’s creative discretion.
  2. Don’t let the creative employee mistake “reinventing the wheel” for real innovation. Make sure that the employee is well-versed in all the current best information and practices on the matter in question before every trying to invent something new. Real innovation builds on, rather than ignores, existing knowledge skill and wisdom.
  3. Whenever the creative is stuck or needing guidance, go back to the desired outcome, parameters, timeframes, and structure. Take them one by one. Desired outcome: start with the purpose and then describe as much of the desired outcome as you possibly can—all the details that the creative does not have to create. Parameters: spell them out. Timeframe and structure: break it down, so employees understand exactly what is expected of them.
  4. Remember, a rough draft is sometimes a good jumpstart for the creative process. Encourage rough drafts, first drafts, second drafts. Rough drafts take the pressure off at the outset and then give the creative, and you, something to work from and talk about, if not exactly measure.

 
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