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Creative Directions: Success Through Protecting Your Passion

By Brian Baker, Vice President, Highmark Techsystems

In this three-part series, we will dig into some of the most important things I’ve learned in the last 20+ years about Creative Direction. We will discuss a number of ideas to help your team succeed, and some things to avoid.

Part One: Keeping the Fire Lit
The one thing I’ve learned to be true more than anything else in my career is that the single most important factor in the quality (and success) of anyone’s work is passion, but even more so for a designer or creative professional. Whether it has been in my own work, or in the work of others on my team, the best, most creative work always happens when we’re truly invested in what we’re doing; and it’s typically a lot more successful in winning proposals. I’ve always hired people based on this, too. Someone who is on fire with energy and passion will make a much bigger impact than someone who has loads of talent but lacks connection to what we are doing. If passion can make such a difference in the quality of our work, it also makes a major impact on your company’s success.

It would naturally follow then, that we would want to foster and protect that passion as much as possible. While that should be recognized by all business leaders, it is especially true of creative directors. We are the ones in the trenches with the creative team and we ultimately understand what other creative people feel and think. Unfortunately, we also tend to be the biggest killers of creativity and passion within our teams.

So what encourages passion, and what extinguishes it?

There are a lot of factors that inspire passion and creativity. Some people just tend to have more passionate personalities, while others need more external inspiration. Certainly working on something that is personally important to us, like a favorite hobby, activity, cause, or charity, is likely to lead to that personal investment, but it’s not like every project that comes across our desks is going to be something we already care deeply about. Regardless of where our passion comes from, it must be protected and encouraged to thrive. How do we keep that spirit alive on a day-to-day basis?

Ownership
This is one of the most important factors in personal investment. A creative professional NEEDS to have ownership in what they are working on. It’s too much work to come up with something truly special if it isn’t “yours” in some way. Our ideas and creations are like children to us, and we just tend to care more about our OWN children, than the annoying neighbor’s kids.

In order to own a project, they need to be empowered to make decisions and live with them. There’s nothing wrong with challenging those decisions in a positive way, or even disagreeing with them, but more often than not, they need to be the one to make the call on what to do. Which brings us to our next subject.

Trust
Insecurity will destroy someone’s ability to make decisions or take the risks necessary to create something new or different. If we are going to ask for someone’s best efforts, they need to know we trust them and their abilities. They need to know that those efforts aren’t going to be wasted and overruled. It also helps them feel valued and appreciated, which throws more fuel onto their fire.

It’s a lot easier to say than to do, and when we start getting push-back by others outside of our team, our instincts (and our own insecurities) will often tempt us to undercut that trust and ownership. Sometimes they will be wrong and everyone else will say they could see it all along, but allowing them to potentially fail over something they believed in is more important than the long-term effects of spoiling their trust.
Trust + Ownership = Accountability.  One of the benefits of accountability is…

Stress
Yes. Stress is good. Stress can be a fantastic motivator. But don’t confuse stress with DISTRESS. Distress is bad. Stress drives us to push a little harder. Distress makes us miserable, overwhelmed and unproductive. A complete lack of stress or accountability tends to make us humans much less productive. We become lazy and procrastinate. We become soft and we lose our passion. A little well-placed stress can keep us more engaged and invested. Having some skin in the game is the definition of personal investment.

Micromanagement is the cardinal sin and single leading killer of passion. Micromanagement undermines trust, and it strips away empowerment, accountability and personal investment. Even worse, it inevitably switches us into what an old friend and co-worker referred to as “monkey-mode.” We turn off our brains and our hearts and just keep asking, “Like this?” …  “Is this what you are thinking?” … We push a few more buttons. “How about this?” It is the fastest way to break a designer’s “give-a-crap.”

The other major murderer of passion is burnout. What I just mentioned about stress being good needs to be balanced with our common sense and empathy. Every person is different and knowing how far to push the throttle and for how long is extremely important. Race cars like to go fast, but eventually they run out of gas. It’s important to know how to keep your team fueled and not overworked. Sometimes, we may be the one pulling back on the throttle when our teammates are overworking themselves. Balance is important, whether they want it or not.

Team projects are truly a double-edged sword. In the right culture and context, they allow your team to feed off one-another’s energy and become something that is greater than the sum of its parts. But they can also make it very hard for anyone to have ownership in what they are doing, and if a team’s chemistry is already stressed, team projects can breed resentment and further dysfunction. The best way I have ever seen team projects work is to keep them extremely short and use them as a tool to offer some quick ideas to the leader of that project. Everyone can jump in for an hour or a day, and then they are back to their own work, while the “owner” of the project can cull through all of the input they got from the team.

Every team is different, but understanding these principals can help you keep yours productive, engaged, invested.

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