How to Manage Performance for Creative Work

Bruce Tulgan
October 25, 2019

Bruce Tulgan

Founder of RainmakerThinking, Inc. and Top Expert on Leadership Development and Generational Issues in the Workplace
Business Creativity & Innovation

If performance management is all about driving continuous improvement in productivity and quality--and helping employees strike a balance toggling back and forth between speed and mindfulness--where does creative work fit into the puzzle? How can managers effectively manage creative work?

We know that creative work can be extremely valuable. But how can you possibly performance-manage creativity? How long should it take to come up with an idea? How do you measure whether the idea is good, very good, or excellent?

We typically think of artists, entertainers, writers, inventors, and designers as creative. But there is always the potential to inject creativity into almost any task, responsibility, or project--into any action. Digging a ditch can be creative if the ditch digger has the right circumstances, inspiration, and support. Of course, the ditch still must be dug, and on time. That's the rub when managing creative work.

There are always parameters, for any work, and that includes creative work. A longtime television industry veteran once told me, "Take the writers on a sitcom. They are engaged in a highly creative process. But they have to keep each teleplay inside the twenty-four minutes. They have to work within the characters and backstory of the show. At the end of the day, they need to get a show written, and then write another one. And then another."

Yes, some jobs are more creative than others. But even the most creative jobs have three elements in common with other work:

  1. A goal--purpose, required outcome, or at least a desired result
  2. A timeframe or an intended structure
  3. Parameters--the things that are and are not within the creative's control

If you are managing people whose work does not include these three elements, I only have this advice: let your great artist create and let the market decide. For everyone else, when you are managing creatives, these three elements are your toolkit.

 Do your creative employees a favor

The biggest favor you can do for employees doing creative work keeps reminding them of all the stuff that is not within their creative discretion. Take the sitcom example. In every episode, the story must have a beginning, middle, and end. The main character has to want something, be denied it, try even harder, and in the end either get that something or not. That's the desired outcome. There must be four six-minute acts--that's the structure and timeframes.

Sometimes, you as the manager may not have a clear goal. Yet. So, you are sending this employee on a creative goose chase of sorts, an exploration. Maybe this is part of your own creative process: you want something to look at, something that might help you imagine what the goal really should be.

If that is what you are doing, then you need to be very clear about that with the employee (and yourself) from the outset. Explain exactly what you have in mind, include the employee in the process. Make it vividly clear to the employee what you do know about the assignment and what role you want them to play in it.

Fine-tune your 1:1s for creative work

In regular, ongoing 1:1 conversations with your creative employees, or when managing creative work of any employee:

  1. Remember that parameters, timeframes, structure, and clear desired outcomes are gifts to anybody doing creative work. At the outset of a creative project, it can seem like anything is possible and everything is on the table. That's daunting because it makes the creative process into one agonizing choice after another. Always make it clear what is not within the employee's creative discretion.
  2. Don't let the creative employee mistake "reinventing the wheel" for real innovation. Make sure that the employee is well-versed in all the current best information and practices on the matter in question before every trying to invent something new. Real innovation builds on, rather than ignores, existing knowledge skill and wisdom.
  3. Whenever the creative is stuck or needing guidance, go back to the desired outcome, parameters, timeframes, and structure. Take them one by one. The desired outcome: start with the purpose and then describe as much of the desired outcome as you possibly can--all the details that the creative does not have to create. Parameters: spell them out. Timeframe and structure: break it down, so employees understand exactly what is expected of them.
  4. Remember, a rough draft is sometimes a good jumpstart for the creative process. Encourage rough drafts, first drafts, second drafts. Rough drafts take the pressure off at the outset and then give the creative, and you, something to work from and talk about, if not exactly measure.

To book Bruce Tulgan for your next event, please visit his profile at https://premierespeakers.com/bruce_tulgan.

Bruce is the author of several books including It's Okay to Be the Boss: The Step-by-Step Plan to Becoming the Manager Your Employees Need. To order in bulk for your next event, go to Bulkbooks.com.

Bruce Tulgan

Want Bruce Tulgan for your next event?

Find out more information, including fees and availability.
Find Out More
Keep Reading
How to Create a Shareable Job Aid
Bruce Tulgan
Bruce Tulgan
February 18, 2021
The number one most effective form of shareable job aid I have seen is the humble checklist. It's a ...
Avoid these 5 bad attitudes at work
Bruce Tulgan
Bruce Tulgan
November 19, 2020
Attitude may be intangible, but it really matters. You cannot always control your feelings (nor should ...
Improve productivity by practicing good email hygiene
Bruce Tulgan
Bruce Tulgan
October 30, 2020
We all know it but don't often say it- email is a huge productivity killer. Like ...
How to Create a Shareable Job Aid
The number one most effective form of shareable job aid I have seen is the humble checklist. It's a simple but powerful tool used from kindergarten classrooms to nuclear launch sites. And in a world of increasingly remote, asynchronous work, these types of job aids will be invaluable. Yet, as simple as they may be, good checklists can be difficu...
Read More
Avoid these 5 bad attitudes at work
Attitude may be intangible, but it really matters. You cannot always control your feelings (nor should you necessarily try to). But feelings are on the inside. Attitude is what you show everyone else on the outside--and that is always under your control. Everybody has bad days or bad moments. But, even if you are not feeling it today, make su...
Read More
Improve productivity by practicing good email hygiene
We all know it but don't often say it- email is a huge productivity killer. Like clockwork, as soon as we are about to start working on a task or project, an email pops into our inbox. We may try to ignore it, and it may work for a little while, but the distraction of that unanswered ping will eventually pull us out of what we're doing. We d...
Read More
When You Don't Have Authority, Use Influence
When work is highly collaborative, there arises an authority conundrum. When there's a problem or delay, and you're left to work things out at your own level, nobody has the power of rank to resolve things swiftly and efficiently. In those situations, my advice has always been: when you don't have authority, use influence. But there's a problem ...
Read More
The Go-to Person's Guide to Great Meetings
Meetings can be great opportunities, but not all meetings are great. There are really only three good reasons for a meeting: To create a feeling of belonging and togetherness To communicate a bunch of information to a bunch of people, in the same way, at the same time To brainstorm about a project, or deal with an open question, such as plannin...
Read More
Practicing extreme alignment will set your remote team apart
The folks at Fellow recently posed this question on Twitter: What is the most underrated management skill? My answer? Alignment. Alignment - Bruce Tulgan (@BruceTulgan) October 6, 2020 Alignment has become a huge focus of my work with clients over the past decade or so. As silos have broken down across organizations and high levels of collabo...
Read More
Trust is required for progress. Here's how to build trust on remote teams.
"I believe that all human progress begins with trust." This was something Frances Frei said to me in a recent conversation we had about transforming toxic workplace cultures. And research seems to support this belief. In one Harvard study, employees in high-trust companies reported: 50% higher productivity 40% less burnout 74% less stress and 7...
Read More
Making people-first decisions at TGI Friday's
In my 27 years with RainmakerThinking, I've been able to experience firsthand what it's like working in a wide range of industries. One of the most challenging and demanding is the restaurant industry. And each of those restaurants--no matter how big or small--is responsible for the livelihoods of so many people. We have been living through t...
Read More
Making people-first decisions at TGI Fridays
In my 27 years with RainmakerThinking, I've been able to experience firsthand what it's like working in a wide range of industries. One of the most challenging and demanding is the restaurant industry. And each of those restaurants--no matter how big or small--is responsible for the livelihoods of so many people. We have been living through the ...
Read More
Nine words that help the NBA build better leaders
If you want to talk about an organization that supports top talent and strong values, the NBA is an obvious choice these days. From being leaders in their approach to coronavirus protocols (even though those protocols aren't always convenient or easy), to supporting players in their expressions of protest (no matter what form those expressions t...
Read More