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How to Create a More Creative Staff

You see it all the time in sports. A team has low morale, poor performance and loses game after game. Then the owners hire a new manager. Morale goes up. Performance improves. And the team starts to win games.

You see this in direct marketing, too, except that poor performance is usually blamed on the team rather than the manager. So writers and designers come and go while the situation never seems to get better.

But if you’re in charge of a creative team, you are largely responsible for their creative output. That’s because no matter how talented or experienced your writers and designers may be, you’re the one who assembles the team and creates the environment in which they work. They can only be as creative and productive as you allow them to be. So if you want to improve their performance, start by improving your management style:

* Hire “creative” creative people. This takes courage and self-confidence because truly creative people aren’t going to agree with you all the time. They’ll think differently and have different ideas than you. If you find that threatening, you’re better off hiring worker bees who will do exactly what you tell them to do without dissent. But if you want a fresh flow of new ideas, you need people who think and act independently.

* Don’t micromanage the creative process. You can dictate objectives. You can evaluate results. But you can’t control what happens in between. Creative people tend to develop their own unique ways of solving problems, so you can’t impose your methods without seriously affecting the work. For example, some time ago a publishing firm hired me to write a direct mail package. But instead of letting me work my own way, they made me first submit several ideas so they could pick the one they liked. After they chose the worst idea, they demanded headlines and subheads for that idea. After approving those, they wanted a draft of the body copy. I found the process restricting. So the copy suffered, as did results.

* Create a safe working environment. Uncertainty and fear are not conducive to creativity. When people are more concerned about how management will react to their work than about the work itself, you will get work geared for approval, not for results. Create an informal, relaxed atmosphere to allow your staff to focus on their tasks. Have high standards, but encourage risk and accept mistakes. Define problems and expectations clearly so that results can be evaluated objectively.

* Make results the ultimate reward. Creative awards are a pat on the back from colleagues. In that way, they are important because writers and designers and other creative people often don’t get much attention any other way. Unfortunately, those pointy hunks of plastic don’t necessarily translate into profits. The business of business is business, so you should reward your creative staff for results. Hand out bonuses. Post winning promotions in the lunchroom. Write articles in your newsletter about testing victories. Let your staff know in a tangible way that their contributions play a vital role in the company.

* Allow for “intelligent failure.” Direct marketing is all about testing. And failure is an integral part of testing and a natural step in the learning process. If one of your staff writes an ad to test a new offer and it doesn’t work, don’t say, “Your ad bombed.” Say instead, “It seems that offer isn’t as appealing as the old one. What else can we try?” This keeps you focused on the problem instead of the person and keeps the staff motivated to find a successful solution.

* Take chances now and then. Greater rewards come only by taking greater risks. Total safety is usually synonymous with mediocrity. This is not to say that you should ignore proven formulas. It means that while you may often start with a tried and true solution, you should keep testing. And your testing should include some ideas that are different and uncertain, just as a well-balanced investment portfolio should include a few more risky investments to increase your odds of long-term success. Breakthrough ideas are usually the result of an idea most people thought wouldn’t work.

Creating a work environment that encourages productive creativity can take months or years. Don’t try to overhaul everything overnight. Start small and introduce changes gradually.

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