Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Creativity On Demand

I had a great plan for last Friday. I was working from home, and for once had a free calendar. The only thing I needed to do was finish a presentation. So how, exactly, did I end up working ALL Friday night and until 2am Saturday?

Friday turned into a day of writer’s block. By the end of the afternoon I had a very clean house, snippets of graphics, a few cool ideas, and some great quotes, but there wasn’t a story that hung together. So I gave up, decided that I’d write off the afternoon as unplanned PTO and headed out to pick up my daughter at school. An hour later, I was standing in the grocery store, and the answer arrived fully-formed in my head. As usually happens after a block, once the vision came in, it was completely clear. I had the idea, knew the path the story needed to take and had no choice but to focus entirely on the presentation until it was completely finished. Even though that meant working until 2.

It’s a cliché that engineers are known for working weird hours. While I was at the startup, it was common for the developers to come in around 11, take frequent breaks for World of Warcraft or foosball, and then work all night. As an HR person, I used to worry about this schedule – didn’t these guys have home lives? Shouldn’t I be encouraging them to work a normal schedule, or at least try to get them back to 40 hours/week?

The truth is that creativity is not available on demand. When you are managing people who work in a creative space, you need to acknowledge this fact. You will have people who work crazy hours, and deliver at random times. This will be simultaneously energizing and frustrating. Most innovators I’ve worked with are incredibly dedicated people but they are also demanding. As an HR person, and as a manager, I’ve found some principles that help in setting the stage to help innovators:
- Focus on outcomes not hours. Some projects will seem easier than others, but you may not be able to accurately predict this. Better to make sure your team members are aligned on the goal, and not worry as much about the time required.
- Create frameworks for success. When assigning projects, give as much context as possible, and be clear if there are specific requirements such as a requirement for delivery, or a deadline that cannot be missed. Beyond that, try to leave ample room for innovation and creativity.
- Be ready to call “done”. Many creative people have trouble declaring something is finished. There’s always one more refinement, or one more thing to add. You may need to set earlier deadlines, or add in reviews to stop tweaking.
- Acknowledge the need for downtime (which may come from nowhere). An engaged creative person is likely to work insane hours. As a result, they will come close to burnout and may need a manager to encourage PTO. Or, they may catch themselves, and announce a spontaneous trip to Hawaii. This flexibility in time off will be necessary to balance the crazy hours and to allow them to recharge creative batteries.

The creative process isn’t a straight line. There are high highs and low lows, and there will always be late nights. But when you see an innovator deliver their latest product, or present a new solution, they aren’t thinking about the hours they put in. They have created something new, something they can be proud of. That’s the measure of accomplishment, not the hours that they worked.

[Image Source Evil Erin. Used under Creative Commons.]


honeypiehorse said...

Sounds like a good list to me! I love the name of this blog.

cruise deals said...

I especially like the "take a break" suggestion about going on a trip. Hawaii works best for me! thanks :)