Zen Business & Creativity (Or six ways to die as a creative)

A colleague recently told me about an interesting interview he read with Ed Catmull, who just published a book on Pixar.  One of the key insights was that he observed how poor management allows organization to smother the creative genius of important company talent.  I’ve been fortunate, and intentional enough to avoid traditional organizational structures in my career;  I’ve either worked for myself as a consultant or enjoyed an executive creative position within a team that lets me call the shots.

The question I’ve been pondering lately is, “Does growth require stifling organization?”

As the company I serve grows, and we encounter the challenges of scalability, we’ve decided to take an intentional and conservative position on hiring only the best players, or re-positioning or re-training people we can trust to understand our culture up through the ranks.

There is nothing inherently wrong with highly structured organizations.  Clearly, some of the most effective and efficient orgs in history have been bureaucratic, hierarchical and process driven.   Other organizations, like Pixar and many creative areas like television, music and culinary arts seem to be impossibly chaotic workspaces, where the final product emerges almost as a miracle.

Death By Process

Many of us thrive on structure and find disorganized production scenarios unsettling and frustrating.  There is a strong desire in many of us to impose order on the chaotic.  It gives us a sense of peace.  The idea of establishing processes and systems is very appealing, because it equates to predictability.  If you’re like this, you’re likely highly valuable in your business as a manager.

However, if one of your key functions is to develop new ideas and innovate – structure, process and interacting with others is your mortal enemy, and you must defend your space and surface area, otherwise you’re going to perform poorly.

If you are like me, your unique ability is creativity.   While I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to the design of our product and systems, I find process and project management a boring, but necessary evil.  I don’t easily tolerate folks who have trouble figuring things out on their own, or want to discuss every step of what they are doing or what I’m doing.  I’ve  been lucky enough to surround myself with colleagues who compliment me on those aspects of managing the details and process to perfection.

Many creative types operate on a different kind of time system.  We often require a great deal of space or unstructured time for contemplation before actually performing or creating the work.   Creatives often seem as if they are off doing nothing, walking or sitting and staring at the wall, or procrastinating.  What’s actually happening is a complex process of visualization and mental preparation.

A creative person often needs time to become obsessive about something in fiercely intense bursts.  People often ask me, “how long did it take you to design that software?”

I would often reply, “just a few inspired hours.”

However, I realize now that’s inadequate and misleading.  There are typically days of contemplation or visualization leading up to the sprint to the finish.  In fact, I now say, “Just a few inspired hours, but weeks or years leading up to the point of inspiration”

So what happens when the valuable process management designers in you company encroach on the creatives?  You’ll see your creatives answering too many emails, filling in reports, asked to attend too many meetings or conference calls because EVERYONE ELSE HAS TO.  And then you’ll wonder why they stopped doing what you hired them for.

You’ll also find an organization evolving where it takes scores of agents to do what a handful of inspired A players could have knocked out in a garage.

Death By Meeting

Meetings are valuable opportunities to discuss, share and develop strategies.  But much of the time they are highly disruptive to the productivity of your creatives.  A creative whiteboarding session or lecture is the exception.

The key is to always ask a few simple questions:

  1. Is there any part of this meeting that is not relevant to everyone?  Don’t force your development or marketing team to sit through a discussion on sales or accounting.
  2. Could you achieve the same outcomes via email or another modern communication method?   I’ve seen teams absolutely KILL it without ever meeting or even speaking to each other.  You’d be shocked how much software development collaboration is done purely via IRC and Email, and it’s incredibly efficient and effective.  Unfortunately, visual and written thinkers have a distinct advantage in this arena, and not all people fall within that learning style.

Death By Language

On the contrary, the world of email and conference calling has significant limitations if the users can’t creatively transcend the medium.  There are many situations where verbal or written communication wastes hours upon hours of time.  Draw a picture.  I’ve seen entire weeks wasted on language that was either unclear or overly verbose and confusing.  The confusion and hand wringing was solved by a few choice moments on a whiteboard, or by drawing a diagram in photoshop.  In fact, I supplement a great deal of my daily communications with illustrations, and they are extremely effective.

Death By Email

Email is both the most valuable form of communication and the most destructive to productivity when mismanaged.  The principles are simple:

  1. Brevity at all times
  2. Short paragraphs and bullets/vs long paragraphs
  3. Don’t CC anyone unless it is absolutely crucial
  4. Don’t ask group questions
  5. More importantly. Don’t reply to group thread discussions with opinions or questions that will elicit other responses unless necessary.
  6. Don’t reply all to anything, ever again!  (ha ha).

Death By Flat Management

I’m a big fan of flat management when it’s structured and scheduled.  Flat organization goes horribly wrong when everyone feels free to contact key players or leadership with questions.  The most valuable talent is inundated with questions.  When I first took my position as CTO at LTS Education, it was actually the first time the organization had ever had in-house technology leadership.  The first few months I received emails from everyone in the company asking me questions about everything from product design, support, training to how to fix their Windows PC.

At first I was flattered, then infuriated and overwhelmed.  Training, structure and rules of engagement had to be established to get through the initial implementation curve of transforming a service culture into a productivity culture.

Death By Busy Bodies

One of the most insidious types of people in an organization is what your grandma might have called, “the busy body.”  They are often insecure, indecisive — yet eager, charming and charismatic.   They are filled with anxiety over their relevance, without enough to do,  incessantly  firing off salvos of group email discussions and phone calls, positing unessential questions, “ideas” or escalating challenges they could have solved in a few minutes into company-wide discussions.  They are compelled to always have the last word, flogging a dead horse of an issue or concern until the problem is escalated to the top of the food chain, where an executive with enough rank has to waste valuable time to make a decision or settle a dispute.

Reform or fire them.  They are a cancer that will destroy your company.

Surface Area and Maximum Points Of Contact

Your productivity hinges on your ability to protect your surface area.  Surface area is both your timespace and the amount of information you have to manage with your relevant points of contact.  The fundamental problem of growing organizations is every person you add to your organization has the potential to increase surface area maintenance by an order of magnitude.

Hire Slow, Fire Fast

In my experience, A-players are confident, auto-didactic, organized, tactically agile and self-managing.  They manage problems UP — always following the spirit of the company principles to guide them, and willing to risk making a mistake in order to be decisive and efficient in their domain, reporting the outcomes rather than the tactical questions.   They take the hill.  B and C players require more structure, training and talented management (often dedicated) to reach the same level of performance.  Control freaks love indecisive busy bodies and yes-men.  They thrive off each other and are ultimately limited to talent and scope of control of their leadership.  Fascism may be effective at times, but it’s usually untenable, and unscalable.

You can’t always get A players, especially in the limited technology labor market today, but given that most great companies are started by an A-player who may not have keen human management talent, you can see why a well paid, smaller team of A players is really often well worth the investment.

Throwing bodies at a problem rarely fixes things, it’s just the knee jerk reaction of B players who have been hired to hire C players and so forth.