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7 tips for leading a creative team

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Any way you look at it, being a successful team leader is no easy task. That’s why there're countless tools out there available to help managers. Whether your team is working on a VFX shot in the next blockbuster movie or working on a new game, leading a team of artists presents its own set of challenges that many corporate managers may never encounter. When you’re leading a team of artists, sometimes it can be easy to revert to more traditional management techniques like micro-management, which can be harmful to your team’s health. Here's a few tips to help improve the performance and happiness of your creative team.

Hire people smarter than you

When fostering a creative environment for your team, one of the first things you’ll quickly realize is you can’t do it alone. Every time someone on your team has a question, you shouldn't be the one with the answer. If you're always answering questions, you’ll soon become the bottleneck and both your projects and your team’s creativity will suffer. That's why micro-management can become a problem. If your team members think you expect them to come to you for approval on every decision, they undoubtedly will. To avoid this, your team needs to be able to help each other grow by learning from each other so they can solve issues on their own. One great way you can do this is by hiring smart, capable people. Although Michael Dell wasn’t speaking about creatives when he said, “Try never to be the smartest person in the room,” the statement is still very true for creative teams.

Get out of your team’s way

43794_Inline-03 After you hire artists who know what they’re doing, one of the best things you can do is get out of their way. Don't be an unintended hindrance to the process. Let them do what they know how to do and help eliminate anything that might stop them from being both creative and productive. A great team leader removes obstacles from their team’s path so they can create without distraction.Your job is to help them do their job.  Of course, this doesn’t mean you should abandon them. What it does mean is you’ll need to understand your team’s needs and roadblocks. What makes your team happy? What personalities work best together?Are the right people in the right seats? Are they getting stressed out over the current project? Never be afraid to be there to listen to their concerns, ask a lot of questions, provide honest feedback and recognize that in creativity there is going to be a lot of failure. Help your team grow by offering ways to learn from that failure and make it that much better.

Affirm your team

All professional artists are accustomed to receiving feedback and critiques on their work, but this doesn’t mean they still don’t pour a little piece of themselves every project. Most will, and if they don't that's probably a concern for you. Creatives thrive on affirmation for their work, so it can go a long way for the health of your team to find ways to affirm the hard work they put into a project, regardless of whether or not it’s used. A lot of creative work is so subjective that it can be tough to take critiques for things that boil down to a matter of opinion. For this reason, try to make any reviews more of a discussion than anything else. Be honest and offer what’s good and what needs work while finding areas to affirm. Even if a particular project isn’t going the direction that’s needed, take the time to affirm the hard work that went into creating what got it this far. That's the power of constructive criticism. Affirming what they've done, even if it's not exactly what's needed, means recognizing their efforts and pointing out positives. Most importantly, it means emphasizing that their mistakes are important opportunities for their artistic growth, which is vital to the company's progress.

Give ‘em a break

43794_Inline-02 People naturally want to do a good job at their work, and creatives are no different in this case. If you’ve successfully hired smart people who buy into your culture, you shouldn’t have any questions about their willingness to create the best work they can. Although a break can mean getting away from the computer (which is often a good thing for creatives to do from time to time), it doesn't always have to mean that. Maybe it's changing up your environment by going to another room, trying another medium, creative style or even perhaps it could be as simple as changing the wallpaper on your desktop. Offering any of these as options can help your team keep their creative juices flowing. Or maybe it just means encouraging your team to spend the last fifteen minutes of the day finding inspiration or hopping over to another teammate's computer to give feedback on their artwork. When you have a team of smart people focused on creating great work, they're already going to be spending plenty of time on their projects without you needing to remind them. Instead, try to find ways they can break the monotony of pushing and pulling those vertices for hours on end. After working on the same animation for hours on end, sometimes having your animator continue to stare at the screen isn’t likely to help create great work. Be aware of each artist's health on a daily basis and suggest a break from their hard work now and then. Even if its only a few minutes, t to recoup, relax and re-visit with a fresh eye.

Every team has its own culture

No doubt your studio certainly has a great culture. In addition to your studio's culture, your team will naturally have its own specific culture that you need to foster. With the nature of creative work today, most artists spend long hours inside of highly complex software programs and cutting-edge hardware. These long hours can cause a stressful situation, and there’s hardly ever a quick fix available, whether it's getting an actor’s movements to match a 3D character or simply a program crashing. However, gone unchecked these sort of technical issues can hurt your team’s culture simply because most artists don’t like troubleshooting. Every minute spent troubleshooting is a minute they’re not creating. In the long-term, this can create frustration and burn out pretty fast. To help maintain your team’s culture, ask questions regularly to get a pulse on your team’s health. Build a transparent mindset in your team to allow them to be open and honest about when they’re getting burnt out. When your team is willing to talk openly about these issues with you, it can help you know where the roadblocks are for your artists. In addition, it can also double as a way for your whole team to help each other out.

Help them grow as a team and as artists

43794_Inline-01 The creative process is unique in comparison to workflows or skills that require a more logical and practical approach. The creative process requires exploration and more failure to find something new and different. By its definition, to create suggests to make something from nothing, and if it has never been done, the process is not there nor has it been tested and refined. Every artist wants to keep learning and grow themselves throughout their career. However, day-to-day work can make it hard to find ways to learn new things and keep growing. This is where you can come in to help make sure your artists grow both individually and as a team together. Whether it's by searching out inspiration for your artists, finding a training platform for them to be able to find the solutions to troubleshooting issues or even planning a team trip to the pub to celebrate defeating that troublesome rig, by looking out for your team's best interests you'll start to grow a positive culture. Although the methods can vary considerably, the simple fact is that we’re working in a fast-paced industry that never stops. Everyone out there is learning and growing, so while your artists will naturally push themselves, it’s up to you to give them the tools they need to grow personally and professionally.

Set the pace for your team

Whether or not you're aware of it, your team looks to you for direction and momentum. You won't always have the answers, but it's up to you to find them and help your team grow just as much as each artist is responsible for their own growth. To help with this, you should always be seeking out ways to learn, grow and improve yourself. As a team leader, you should never settle or assume you know it all. On the contrary, if you're not careful you can quickly lose track of industry trends and technology. Stay informed about the industry and where it's going. Take 10-15 minutes every day to look at the latest creative news and trends to know what others are doing.Look for opportunities to learn more about being a better team leader and if you haven't already, start looking for ways you can get to know your team better. Look for opportunities to learn more about being a better team leader and learn from those around you. And if you haven't already, start looking for ways you can get to know your team better. The more you get to know your team, the better you'll be able to communicate with them and help them grow.   Ultimately, the end goal for any creative lead is to be on the lookout for ways you can keep your team productive and happy despite the fact that sometimes creativity can seem counterproductive. Although the points covered here are brief, hopefully they’ve sparked an idea or offered some inspiration for ways to manage your team effectively. If you have any suggestions, tips or inspirations for other team leaders please leave them in the comments below.