My team isn’t creative enough? Say what?

Advice from The Sherwins for March 2017


Dear Sherwins,

Our team consistently produces really great products and we work well together. We have a new manager who is always saying that we need to “be more creative”, but he won’t give examples. What should we do?

B in London


Dear B,

Aw, jeez. Really? This is still happening? This is right up there with “We need to raise the bar” on the list of Things Managers Should Stop Saying Immediately Because They Are Worthless Pieces of Feedback.

Back in October, we talked about Hallowe’en costumes. In that column, we said this:

The whole concept of “what’s creative?” is arbitrary, contextual, and… well… kinda crap. Creativity is for you. Not for someone else to slap a label on. And it’s certainly not something you can develop a metric for.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote in his book Flow: “Creativity is any act, idea, or product that changes an existing domain, or that transforms an existing domain into a new one.” There you have it. Sounds to us like what you do is creative. Ta-dah!

But managers still say things like yours did, and here we are. Maybe you should be asking for a metric. A qualitative one. What is this guy’s definition of “more creative”? Have a meeting with him about it with lots and lots of sticky notes. Nothing says, “We’re a bunch of creative people!” like sticky notes. Colored pieces of paper, pipe cleaners, magazine pictures, Legos, crayons, recycled string from an alpaca farm on San Juan Island, dried macaroni, stickers….throw any of that stuff on a table and people immediately know Things Are Gonna Get Creative. That meeting will be so creative, his mind will melt.

That’s us being sarcastic, but there’s a kernel of truth in there that’s worth pursuing. The concept of creativity, especially creativity in a business context, has to contend with a lot of external perceptions.

Most of us first encountered the word creative as children. Things were creative because they looked creative. But this simply isn’t true. Looks aren’t everything. We know this in our heart of hearts, and it takes practice to get past that. It takes an experienced eye to go beyond visual frosting to a product that’s inventive, practical, and inspirational.

Many people think that they aren’t creative because they get stuck at the shallow end of the visual pool. The act of being creative is a process, in which the visual, tangible part is only one of many steps. But since how things look is such a big deal, people get stuck, and they never get stuff out of their heads and into the world. Ira Glass talks about this, how the hardest thing about being a creative person is having taste. That there’s a disconnect between what we imagine is possible and what we’re actually capable of producing. And that’s true whether it’s blogging or scrapbooking or carving ice sculptures of their favorite sheep in New Zealand or just making nachos.

We have friends who are creativity coaches, and the most important work that they do is breaking the spell that the visual has over us. They get people to stop freaking out over how good something doesn’t look. Things that are Creative are not little Athenas, springing wholly formed and beautiful from the head of a god. Level of fidelity is not an indicator of creativity.

Creativity is a never-ending cycle of thinking, producing, responding, refining, and thinking some more. You put something out there, you get a response, you refine it, and so on. In a corporate setting, that response part is essential. Crappy responses make for crappy products.

Managers who say things like “you aren’t being creative enough” have an inability to translate what that means into something tangible that can be responded to. If your team has nothing to react to, no examples to use as guidance, and no understanding of why those examples are relevant to your current team's efforts to change the world, then it will never be enough. Your manager needs to recognize this and learn how to participate. Some people have never been pushed to explore the very concepts that drive their companies, their aesthetics, and their lives.

He could just as well say, “This needs to be better.” That’s equally unhelpful. But throwing out “more creative” to a team of creative people… well… it kinda hurts more. It’s lazy, and it’s a cruel way of using a talented professional’s title, role, and identity against them when you should be talking about the work. Bludgeoning people like this doesn’t drive them to greatness, it just drives them away.

This is all to say that someone needs to stop messing around and actually ask this manager what they mean by creative. Sooner the better.

To be creative is to stop living in the mind. To put something out there and have it be accepted or rejected. That’s your job. One cannot be creative without materials to combine: Ideas, words, tortilla chips, code, and so forth.

“More creative” is simply not enough material. B, there are ideas about creativity in that manager’s head that have to get out. If they don’t, they will screw up your team. You just have to decide if you want to help with that. Help him and your team decide what “more creative” means. What does it look like? What does it accomplish? Help solve the problem.

Or don’t. But if you say nothing and do nothing, you too are stopping the cycle. You’re choosing to not be creative. And when all is not said and not done, your manager will have been right.

All our best,
The Sherwins


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The fine print: This column expires on March 31st, 2017, which coincidentally is also when Ask The Sherwins is due to renew our creative license. Send questions to questions (at) askthesherwins (daht) com. All questions become the property of Ask the Sherwins, LLC and may be edited. Our advice shouldn't be construed as a replacement for the appropriate legal or professional counsel.