I wrote this as part of my previous post, but it made it way too long. So here is partish-twoish:
I understand the need — or at least the want — for measurable benchmarks when managing a team of workers. I also understand that it’s probably a bit nerve wracking for a boss / manager type to write checks and send them out into the void not knowing if a worker is spending company time on Netflix.
However – my brother’s boss had the right idea. In over 12+ years of working in web development I have managed my fair share of junior designers and programmers. And it’s not rocket science.
For example, I wasn’t happy with any of the existing programs to automate some repetitive tasks at Sun Tails. So I hired some programmers to create a program that would import orders, manage inventory, update customer shipping status, etc.) We went over the jobs, they named their price and gave me an estimate of how long it would take, and I hired them. The job has taken a bit longer than we thought (jobs like this always do) but I’ve been able to see their progress all along the way. First orders began importing automagically, already saving me a huge chunk of time. Then we spent some time fixing some shipping errors. When that was working, they moved on to inventory management, then notifying the customer correctly of their shipping statuses.
All along the way I could see progress; I could tell they were doing a good job. Is it any of my business if they take a break at 2pm to eat a sandwich and watch an episode of Breaking Bad? Nope. All I care about is that the job gets done in a decent amount of time, does what it’s supposed to, and saves me time.
It wouldn’t help anything if I were phoning the programmers every morning for a status update. It would only interrupt their work and probably annoy them to the point that they might prioritize other tasks over mine. This feels so normal and natural to me, but maybe that’s because I understand how they work.
Bad bosses get things done; some of their skills obviously work for them. But when working with creatives, there can be a long term cost. High turn over and people crying in heaps on their bedroom floor is not how I want to run my company, whether it pays in dollars and cents or not.
I have this (probably) silly fear that as our company grows I’ll forget what it was like and morph into some kind of Mr. Burns or Miranda Priestly. So I’m noting my advice for myself and anyone else managing creatives lest it fade in my memory:
Tips for managing creatives
- If at all possible, let the work speak for itself. Phone calls and meetings should be a last resort. They interrupt his/her day and destroy productivity.
- Use project and task management software. Something like Asana or Basecamp. Piling on new ideas, new projects, future ideas, or future projects via a phone call is utterly overwhelming, and email threads can be hard to follow if the conversation is long or changes frequently. Creative brains are consumed with the current task. We can’t multitask creativity with your ever changing task list. Write it down in a permanent cloud-hosted space and prioritize it so we have a clear task to move on to when we finish the current one.
- Not every task can be priority A+++. If it is, and you only have one designer / programmer / creative, you need more people on your team. You cannot give one person sixty-seven top priority tasks and expect her to finish things at a super human pace. My programmers couldn’t do every single thing I requested at once. We had to take it in chunks. I hired two because I had two important tasks: integrating orders with the shopping cart, and doing the same for ebay. One is working on the cart, the other ebay, neither one is overwhelmed.
- Understand that when reviewing a project (website, software, logo, design, fabric, etc.) giving the entire company the opportunity to chime in with their opinions on said project will slow the project down. This is not the fault of the creative. When a simple one page directory takes over a month and you call the creative up to holler about how much it is costing, ask yourself how YOU as the project manager / boss person can speed things up. One of those ways, I guarantee, will be to make the ‘feedback group’ much, much smaller. When Bertha in customer service, Biff from accounting, and Opal who isn’t even with the company anymore all get to tell you what they thinks of the logo, that will not only slow progress, but it will also affect the quality of the project. AHEM.
- Be willing to familiarize yourself with how a creative person works. Be willing to adapt to how they need to work, especially if it means more productivity for you. For example, if you go on vacation and accidentally give your designer more space than usual, she will envelope herself in work. She will forget to eat and forget to shower and she will be hand coding your responsive blog from sun-up to… probably sun-up, only collapsing into bed to dream of code. When you get home from your vacation and realize you haven’t heard from her in four weeks, do not lose your crap all over the place. Do not call her and accuse her of dropping off the face of the earth. Take some time to listen. To understand. To realize and appreciate all she has been doing while you have blessedly been otherwise occupied and not calling her every ten minutes.
- Throw out everything you learned at the “How to win at business by being a douche bag” conferences. Creatives are generally not hard-nosed business types schooled in fangs-out negotiation. We are generally people who were major dorks growing up, and a lot of us were bullied and teased for our introverted head-in-the-cloud mannerisms. We’ve turned things that made us weird into marketable skills, and all your fist-to-face negotiation tactics do is remind us of being shoved up against the locker room wall and having our lunch money stolen. You might cow us for a while, but if you can’t turn off your fight mentality, you’re going to lose creatives; none will want to join your company ‘family’ long term with that kind of treatment.
- Keep accurate notes and records for yourself (this is where task management software helps). If you set a designer or programmer to task claiming that this particular task beats all other tasks in urgency and importance and the world might implode if this task is not completed in six days, then forget and in five days start shouting at them for spending so much time on the thing you told them to spend all their time on, that’s actually your fault, not theirs. Don’t be a jerk, remember the things you say, the instructions you give, and go the extra mile: If the creative says the all important task will take at least three weeks, don’t start blowing your top in two. Save that for when the project takes four weeks, because it totally will.
- Don’t ignore personality differences. If you’re a red-type managing a bunch of blues, yellows, and whites, they’re going to hate your guts unless you learn how to talk to, communicate with, and understand people who function differently. If this is hard, buy some books. Hire a personality specialist. Go to non-douchebaggy conferences to learn about love languages. Maybe try to apply the empathy and sympathy you apply in other areas of your life to your work life, too.
- Don’t make your creative type defensive. Creatives generally love what they do, and can do a LOT for your company, but if you start getting suspicious about their time and hours, accusing them of wasting time or fighting with them about how they run their freelancing business, they’ll start to feel backed into a corner. When your creative is forced to constantly step outside her quiet comfort zone to stand up for herself, to try to explain, to even shout over your shouting on the telephone, you have a serious problem. She won’t feel safe, she won’t feel like she is trusted, and she’ll leave.
- Recognize your strengths and weaknesses. If you aren’t a creative type and can’t hope to understand why they don’t like to work 9 – 5 in an office environment or why your programmer delivers files at 3am, maybe hire a project manager who understands them. Hiring someone (and paying them what they are worth) who understands creatives will skyrocket your productivity, increase the happiness and well-being of your paid underlings, and should alleviate stress all around.
- Read Clients from hell and don’t be too stuffy or proud to see yourself in the stories. Learn from them. Improve. Laugh off differences. Make an effort to understand the needs of the people whose skills your company needs. Appreciate them. Reward them rather than yelling at them, and you just might find yourself with a team that feels loyal to you and your company and doesn’t cringe when you call them ‘family’ during your now once in a blue moon staff meetings.