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Coaching creativity: 4 keys to lead your design team

“As leaders, we should think of ourselves as teachers and try to create companies in which teaching is seen as a valued way to contribute to the success of the whole.” – Ed Catmull, co-founder, Pixar Animation Studios 

Great creative leadership has never been more critical. Design challenges are coming in at a blazing speed. Budgets are smaller, deadlines are tighter, expectations are higher and technologies are evolving, rapidly. Delivering the captivating, creative experience today's clients and consumers demand is increasingly difficult. 

All too often, leaders turn to quick fixes like freelance artists, overtime hours and sacrificing the creative process in the name of “efficiency.” As a leader under pressure, these shortcuts are appealing.

But in the design world, there is a point of diminishing return: the more you rush the creative process, the more quality suffers. 

Short-term, hired help and extended hours can alleviate the pain of teams stretched too thin, but they’re costly solutions. Long-term, these choices can be detrimental to your budget and a team’s overall health and confidence. 

To stay on top of the work without sacrificing quality, your team needs to grow their confidence and abilities. It’s on creative leaders need to make this progress happen. Follow these four strategies to increase creative courage and deliver more productive projects. 

Creativity key #1: Support innovative culture  

"Part of maintaining a thriving creative culture is giving people time and permission to play." – Tim Brown, CEO, IDEO 

Creativity is a constant battle between refinement and not letting details be the blinders that keep you from stretching your creativity. When your artists start to fall into a rut, they need a supportive environment to help get them out of it.

So, how can you create a culture that carries your team through inspiration dry spells? Consider activities that encourage team members to explore new things.

Maybe it's a Friday fun-day project of crafts or sketches that gets your team off their computers for a couple hours. Perhaps it's challenging your team to spend the last fifteen minutes of the day learning something unrelated to their projects. Then encourage them to share what they've learned with the rest of the team in the daily scrum the next morning. Or it could be as simple as having your artists start their projects somewhere new. Whether that's a different room or even outside, let them stretch their legs and get out of their normal working environment.

The potential means are limitless, but the end goal is to nurture a culture that helps your team look at things from a fresh perspective. You'll never know when inspiration can strike and open the door for new ways of thinking.

Creativity key #2: Build a knowledge-sharing process

One of the best ways to help each artist on your team grow is setting up opportunities for them to work together. Here’s how to create a knowledge-sharing process: 

  1. Start by scheduling a regular time to go around to your team's desks. These informal chats help you stay up to date on the challenges your team is facing with their projects. Be a sounding board for potential solutions, or pair them up with another team member so they can solve it together.
  2. Encourage your team to collaborate on those solutions and then set up a time to share what they've learned with the team. This helps everyone enjoy the acquired knowledge. It also lets anyone who might come across similar issues in the future know who they can work with on a new approach to the solution.

Creativity key #3: Encourage new tools and skills 

“If you get stuck, draw with a different pen. Change your tools; it may free your thinking.” – Paul Arden, Executive Creative Director, Saatchi & Saatchi

Heavy workloads and tight deadlines can render your team susceptible to letting things fall between the cracks, like using the best and latest software and hardware for a given project. It’s up to leaders to ensure their teams are exploring new tools and techniques. If this commitment gets put on the backburner, teams are more likely to fall behind and become less skilled in the long-run. 

It can be difficult to get creatives to break away from their creative process to drill down on new technologies and accompanying skills that can be foreign and frustrating, but it’s important to emphasize the long-term value of learning and continued mastery. Often learning initiatives are most successful when leaders take a hands-off approach and allow team members to grow at their own pace.

Set the example by taking a few minutes each day to see what new plug-ins, scripts or tools are out there and share worthwhile news with your team. You'll only know what tools can help your team if you make it a priority to be informed. As your team is tackling new challenges, you'll be able to make educated decisions on which new tools and skills will help your team achieve success.

Creativity key #4: Promote change

Change is at the heart of creativity—you'll unlock more creativity the more you promote change within your team's culture. Here's a handful of ideas to get you started.

Have an artist change how they approach a project they've done a thousand times. For example, allow the artist to invite different members to a brainstorm or meet 1:1 with collaborators. Consulting with a different set of team members can open up new perspectives.

Do you have a recurring team meeting? Try throwing in a "question of the day" or a fun topic to spark inspiration and collaboration before the discussion gets underway. It can be work related, but you can also use this to help your team learn more about each other and stay engaged.

Encourage your team to learn more about the process up and down the creative pipeline. Some studios even go so far as to let team members change their roles for short periods. For a modeler, let them set aside some time to learn from your animators. Or invite your designers to attend a video shoot. This sort of role change can help your team members appreciate each other's roles while also helping them create better work overall.

Coaching creativity: A creative challenge all its own  

Creative talent are a uniquely brilliant bunch. And channeling that talent into engaging experiences that delight audiences–while meeting deadlines and budgets–is no easy feat. To stay on top of the demand without sacrificing quality, your team looks to you to set the example. Give your team the freedom to explore, the time to play, the inspiration to keep going and the support to stay on track. Give them the chance to focus on what they do best—being creative.