Creative Teams – Making Art Within the Organization

By Ted Esler, PhD

Sometimes you need to accomplish a job and you can’t do it with the usual list of suspects. These are tasks that require artistry and sophistication, not just brute managerial force. Such was the case a few years ago when I was tasked with creating a video resource that would communicate the core values of our organization. We had highly gifted and talented leaders who all had a stake in the outcome. My first thought was to get everybody to the table, gather input, and begin to make decisions. That would have been about a dozen people.

And a big mistake.

Highly collaborative organizations are great places to work. They empower staff, give everybody a voice, and usually produce the best results. One area, however, where limited collaboration is better than broad collaboration is when creativity is the key to success. Good art is usually the product of one person or a very small team of people. Rarely do we find high collaboration alongside eye-popping creativity.

Enter the creative team: A specialized team whose job is to infuse creativity.

Establishing a creative team is something I have had the opportunity to observe and participate in a number of times. It is not the same as a project team or a team made by combining people from different organizational areas. A creative team sidesteps the organizational chart to free up people to be creative. It follows a philosophy of creativity that frees up artists to be creative while meeting project objectives. These suggestions might keep your creative team from slipping into mediocrity.

1. Set objectives while avoiding process management

In order to “create” creativity, leaders must consider outcomes while avoiding management of the process. For good managers, this is perhaps the hardest thing about the creative process. Most managers are trained to set objectives, chart the path to the objective, and hold teams accountable to the process. This is different than the outcome. I once had a boss that would say, “First we plan the work, then we work the plan.” This is great for most managed projects. When it comes to creativity, however, you need to kill the idea of a managed project.

Instead, set the endgame objectives. Tell your creative team that when finished, this is what you want. Paint the picture for them. For example, “When we are done with this video two things will happen. People will watch it and cry. They will then say, “I want to be a part of that!” Be emotive, be concrete, be passionate. The ideas implanted during your introduction of the project need to be short, pithy, and powerful. Don’t share numbers with them, and don’t tell them how to do it.

Methods for reaching the objective should not be part of the creative process. Avoid setting forth methods! Patton once said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” After inspiring them with what the project will accomplish don’t make the mistake of handcuffing them by telling them how they will accomplish it. Let them have the fun (and trials) of the journey.

2. Get the right faces at the table

Think small. Think very small. Now think smaller yet. Two are better than five or six. Eight or more is a death knell. Favor a small team over pragmatic concerns. If you absolutely have to add this person or that person make sure you think about why. Often in our organizations we include people because “It is their area of responsibility.” Don’t let the organizational chart dictate the participants.

It might be prudent to visit stakeholders before assembling your team and explain to them what you are trying to accomplish and why you are keeping the team small. Ask them for freedom to keep the team small and if you run into flack, appeal to upper management. If you are upper management, be cruel. By this I mean, stick to your commitment to design something great even if it involves disappointing some people along the way. Steve Jobs has been called,”a dictator with good design taste” because he refused to let engineers set design (how many engineers do you know have great fashion sense? I am guessing none). Jobs knew that in order to make something as bland as a computer be sexy he had to find designers, not engineers. In order to protect the creative side, you must be a dictator at times. Get assurances that people will appropriately handle concerns by coming to you with them. Expect pushback and handle it with grace but firmness.

Determine which people should be at the table based on their ability to contribute creatively. For example, in our case we knew we would be hiring the videographers so we didn’t need them in the idea-generation stage. On the other hand, we needed people who really understood the core values of our organization. Without them in place we would never have gotten the main message across.

Don’t hesitate to look in unusual places for the right people. I think youth is important. Studies on creativity show that there are two archetypes of creativity. One is the “youthful burst” and the other is “older, consistent.” Each is very different and it might be good to combine the two (see “Old Masters and Young Geniuses by Galenson and Jensen). The other participant in the project is so important that I give them their own bullet in this article.

3. Make sure your audience is taken into account

We do not have an outsider’s perspective of ourselves. Unless the creativity you are producing is for your own consumption only (not likely) you had better understand this and plan for it.

Remember those videographers we were hiring? Well, they knew nothing about our work. They were our outside eyes. As they traveled with our team, met our staff worldwide, and began to see the heart of our organization something special happened to them. They got it. They would say (with astonishment) “People really do this stuff?” the first time they visited a thriving couple raising children in an extremely remote part of the world. They then adapted their work to contain the awe that they themselves were feeling. They learned about us, they understood. Because they started out much like our audience, they were able to not only convey the core values of our movement, but they were being converted to the vision and captured this emotion on film.

Your eyeballs stay in your head. Think about your audience and know that you will never see things as they do. The only way I know to fully capture your audience’s perspective is to give them a means to influence and participate in the creative process. Granted, there are a handful of highly talented and gifted artists who easily transcend their own perspective and can magically create art that communicates to our hearts. I am not one of them. Are you? If not, let your audience perform this task for you by putting them on the team if possible.

4. Be ruthless on dates and budget

Creative types (I call them “artsey-fartsey” people and I wish I were one) usually don’t like accountability. It rubs them the wrong way. Many are perfectionists. They cannot understand why one more month, another injection of cash, a rewrite of the script, or other means of delay can’t be extended to them. The only way to keep them in production mode is to hold them to hard dates and budgets.

My experience is that they are fearful of committing themselves to a creative path. “If I do this, I can’t do that… oh, what do I do?” They struggle with making a decision. Typically, managers are good at making decisions. Don’t do it – don’t become their manager. Force the creative team to decide by setting a firm deadline with consequences for not performing. This helps them even though they might feel rushed.

Creative people also like to be immersed in the work.  Sometimes, the only way they will fully focus is through a forced period of intense effort. Deadlines and money (or really, the lack of it) are a good motivator for completing a project.

5. Be a peace loving hippie on freedom

If the team decides that the best way to accomplish their task is to run barefoot and naked through fields of flowers to develop inspiration… well, do you really care? [ok, you might care about that – but you get the point]. Let them work it out. Give them a long leash and stay out of the way. On the film project I did not travel with the team. I wanted to but I was the executive vice president. That means, “somebody with the authority to stamp on ideas without even realizing it they have done it.”

We are always aware of “polity” in relationships (polity refers to the power structures that govern our interactions). As an organizational or positional leader each word you say is filtered through that paradigm. A creative suggestion may be perceived as a complete change in direction. Set the ground rules for your team early on that they are free to say whatever needs to be said. Stay out of it as much as possible. I set the wheels rolling and do my best to watch, only dipping in ocassionally when abolutely necessary.

One temptation you will face is to ask for a review partially completed work. If that is required, then you need to communicate that upfront as it will become, in a sense, a deadline for the team. Check your motives, though. If the reason for you asking is so that you can re-direct the team into a different path, you will be managing them.

6. Walk a tightrope with critics

I once read an article (I have long since forgotten the source) that talked about how athletes are usually remembered for the “one big moment” that they had in their career. If you threw the pass that saved the game or struck out in ninth inning with the bases loaded, that one moment defines your career. Artists are not that different. I have a friend who has was awarded a Grammy. That one award has fueled a great career. When one creates art, they are putting something out there for the whole world to see and to judge. A single, successful project can have significant effects on a creative person. As can a single failure.

When creativity is purposefully concentrated into a single team, they should be recognized for their contribution. There are many types of rewards, but for the artist, the critic wields a mighty influence. Share the love with them and don’t take credit as the project organizer. On the other hand, you may also have to run interference for your team. Artistic endeavor needs to be protected. I have seen a number of well-done projects produce criticism that is very deflating to the creative people involved.

No project within an organization is free of critique. However, when the project is complete, and the video posted to the Internet, the publication printed, or the event is over, move on. At that point, criticism is no longer helpful accept as input for future projects.

In the video project I have mentioned we did make some mistakes. The sound quality could’ve been better, the material is not suitable for Internet-based sharing, limiting its audience. In spite of all of this, I think this is among the best organizationally-focused material I have ever seen. Why deflate the team that created it by harping on these issues? It won’t change what was produced.


Creativity will become an increasingly important part of organizational survival. We used to live in an information society. I believe we are moving toward  a creativity society. Organizational success will depend on your ability to come up with new ideas, better ways to communicate and fresh implementations of old ideas. What used to be considered creative is now a commodity. The bar has been raised.

I will never forget the fun it was to show the footage of our creative team’s work to people who knew nothing about us. The first question was usually, “Who made this video?” and I was so proud of the team.

Go forth and create!

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