How to lead creative people

Photo credit: Jerrold McGrath

Photo credit: Jerrold McGrath

We spend quite a bit of time trying to understand changes in how people work. Given the significant shifts that are shaping our relationship to work, we have some concerns about the future of leadership development. For any number of cultural reasons, leadership possesses a mystique, a heroic aura that asks leaders to be more than the sum of their experiences. Too often, leaders see themselves as Caesar with thumbs up or down to signify acceptance or denial. Organizations seek predictability over almost all else and leaders, in far too many cases, are there to manage expectations or inspire compliance.

Much of our current affluence can be tied to our approaches to leadership. Similarly, many of our current challenges are products of the very same leadership paradigms.

The modern workforce is changing and the emergence of creative professionals as an economic force is asking something different of leaders. To put it simply, it seems economically untenable for leaders to make decisions about issues and topics about which those reporting to them know more. Of course, this has always been the case as the total quality management movement and its populist undertones clearly illuminated. Lean requires everyone to be accountable for quality, and those closest to the line are best equipped to identify waste.

The complexity and increased competitiveness of the current economic climate, however, requires more ‘right’ answers and fewer predictable, yet sub-optimal, outcomes.

What then, is the role of a leader of creative professionals, if not to be an expert?

There are any number of answers and over time we hope to explore a few of them. Some are part of the traditional purview of good leadership, and some, like this, represent a different framing of an ongoing problem.

Complex tasks require collective effort. The big, juicy problems of our time will not be solved by a lone genius in a basement, at least entirely. Complex or chaotic problems require collective ideation and convergence as well as effective execution. This can be carried out individually (disjunctively) or collaboratively (conjunctively), or more likely, in an ongoing, rotating combination of both.

For the sake of this piece, we will define individual ability as a measure of talent (including knowledge and experience). What tools does the individual bring to the task? How engaged are they in its completion? What type of feedback exists to ensure reflection on performance?

Collective ability, then is a function of individual ability and the diversity within the group. Ten brilliant individuals with identical perspectives and approaches (an impossibility but allegorical) are less likely to generate productive solutions than a diverse group of individuals meeting a minimum level of competence.

We can’t suppose, though, that the difference between disjunctive and conjunctive tasks is easy to make. One role of a modern leader, then, is to understand when collaborative effort is best employed and when individual expertise is best leveraged to move the solution forward. There are a lot of assumptions about this that need to be critically reflected upon before this can happen, however. Culture often defines our preferences for solo or collective activity, not the best interests of the project or problem.

Certain preconditions must also exist for conjunctive or disjunctive tasks to be effectively executed.

Conjunctive Tasks – “Two Heads are Better than One”

  • Knowledge must be dispersedly held

  • Similar levels of access or understanding must exist

  • People must have motives to reveal knowledge or expertise

  • Collaborative success must be valued for individuals to surrender expertise that will be valued (sometimes more) in disjunctive activity

  • Significant portion of the dispersed knowledge must be useful

  • If context hasn’t been properly set then collaborative action requires frequent backtracking which is more difficult to do collectively

  • Biases must be identifiable and correctable

  • A dominant narrative can direct collaborative activity non-productively so impartial (not reliant on hierarchical authority) means of validation must exist

Disjunctive Tasks – “Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth”

  • Expertise must be relevant to the task at hand (It is too easy to assume expertise in one area equates to expertise in another)

  • Activity should be irreversible (If disjunctive tasks face the risk of being overturned, commitment to individual execution will be hindered)

  • Shared fundamental preferences (Everyone must share a sense of what the desired end is)

  • Instrumental differences are helpful, but clarifying the foundational objective is essential before disjunctive tasks can occur

I am not suggesting any easy answers in this. I am simply suggesting that an underappreciated ability of effective leaders in creative organizations is the ability to determine when work needs to happen within a group and when it needs to happen in a dispersed manner. Too much collective work leads to over-analysis and wasted effort. Too much individual work leads to incoherence. Good leadership means moving beyond our own preferences in service to the project at hand.