Keeping The Magic In A Creative Organization

You know it when you see it: a creative team that always delivers amazing work, a group whose performance is consistently greater than the sum of its parts.

There’s an inventiveness and exuberance that surprises you, even when you know the team well and have developed high expectations. The people are prolific. They work hard, sacrificing their own time and interests when the job demands it. They obviously love what they do and love working with each other. It shows.

In the words of Vitruvius, they haven’t lost the “delight” part of firmness, commodity, and delight in their work. They can be architects, artists, graphic designers, engineers, product designers, planners, writers, advertising and media people, or other creative disciplines – but they all do exceptional work and keep exceptional relationships with their clients and customers. They have fun, and so do you.

So what is this? It’s a cultural quality, an ethos – a manifestation of an organization’s real vision and values, not something out of a management memo or policy manual. It’s very personal and very authentic.

You also know it when the magic is not there, or when it’s been lost. Some groups never had it and always struggle to rise above the ordinary. Some have had it but given it up in transitions to people with different priorities. One large design firm had a kind of bipolar leadership pattern, alternating every few years between creative entrepreneurship and internal bean counting. That design firm is now gone, absorbed into a large public company.

How do you build the magic in a creative organization, and keep it when it’s there?

1.  Insist on diversity of backgrounds and ideas at all levels of the organization. There is no substitute for the creative energy that contrast, discussion, and debate provide for a group of people. A firm’s work for its customers can’t be inspired if the firm itself is not an inspiring place to be. To paraphrase Walter Lippmann:  when everyone thinks the same, there’s not much real thinking going on.

2.  Demonstrate a strong vision and purpose in everything you do. This can be challenging, particularly for large organizations, but it’s essential. As Daniel Pink advises in Drive, the most talented young people want to be part of a significant cause that will improve the world around them. This motivation is more important than compensation or other traditional rewards. Your firm has to stand for something, really be something, and mean it.

3.  Practice real servant leadership. Your people need to feel that you support their individual growth and success, toward their highest potential, within the context of your firm’s vision and business model. They need to know that you listen, that you care, and that your decisions will be fair. With this support, they will be free to do their very best for your customers and their colleagues in the firm.

4.  Accept and nurture the unusual personalities. Your most creative people may be your most eccentric. They may like to communicate differently than others and need the same consideration in return. They’re probably strong introverts, quite different from more engaging and decisive leaders. In my experience, they can be some of your most effective team members if they’re positioned correctly.

5.  Promote and reward your most creative people. The best creative firms promote their brightest minds externally, using their names, faces, and ideas to represent the whole organization. They attract new clients and talented new team members. It’s also critical to reward them internally with compensation and benefits that reflect their true value. Don’t let “management” appear to be the only advancement opportunity.

6.  Make sure everyone understands and supports your business model. Creative diversity is a good thing, but differing visions of business success can create anarchy. It takes some effort to help right-brained team members understand the firm’s financial goals, performance metrics, and rewards. Like anyone else, the creative folks need to understand how they contribute to business success and a sustainable firm.

7.  Keep at it, you’re never finished. Like practicing a piece of music you’ve known for years, a leader must constantly work to refine the creative magic in his or her organization, especially as it grows and changes over time. As Ed Friedrichs wrote recently, “Inspiring employees is the most important thing a leader can do.” The vision must always be relevant, and every member of the firm must be consciously engaged and developed. When these things happen, there’s no limit to your potential.


Clark Davis, FAIA, LEED AP is a Principal Consultant with Cameron MacAllister Group. He leads services in strategy, leadership development, and organizational change. If you are interested in learning how Clark can help your firm, contact him directly at 636-448-9227 or via email.

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