How to improve buoyancy – for you and your business

January can be a tough month, so the DBA’s John Scarrott looks at how to raise your spirits.


Source: Ged Carroll

January can be a tough month for creative leaders and their teams. Christmas is a dot in the rear view mirror, the mornings are dark, days are short and although it’s a new year, many of the challenges of working in the design industry seem anything but new.

To quote Daniel Pink in his book To Sell is Human, ‘buoyancy’ (not Beyonce as I almost read it) is what’s required in heaps to sustain the momentum of creative businesses in the face of the many and varied bumps in the road they face.

But designers often find their buoyancy levels being eroded by their day-to-day experiences – whether that’s requests for free pitches, rejected ideas or difficult conversations with clients. This buoyancy depletion tends to occur just out of sight, unless it is consciously addressed.

How would you rate your buoyancy right now (and that of your team) on a scale of 1-10? Wherever you are on that scale, the good news is that you can increase it.

Your levels of buoyancy can be influenced by how motivated you are. By rating the level of motivation within your team and then seeking ways to increase them, the more buoyant you’ll be and the more positively you’ll view setbacks, increasing the chance you’ll derive positives from the most negative situations. 

With this in mind, what drives motivation? More importantly, as a leader of a creative business, what can you do to increase yours and that of your team?

Again, I’m going to draw on the work of Daniel Pink. In Drive, his other brilliant book, he highlights three key factors that affect someone’s motivation. These are: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose and are defined as follows:

  • Autonomy is the level of freedom, responsibility and control that you have over how you accomplish a task. You may not have control over the problem you’ve been asked to solve, but you are given the scope to create the path to solving that problem.
  • Mastery requires that you feel that you are improving as a practitioner of what you do all the time. That you are frequently operating at the edge of your comfort zone and by doing so, expanding that zone. You’re learning, growing and getting better and better at what you do.
  • Purpose is all about knowing how what you do fits into a bigger goal. For leaders, this is all about the reason for the business’s existence and for their teams it’s about having a clear understanding of what this is and vitally, how their contribution matters.

So why not start with some questions to create a “motivation health-check” against the criteria above? You’ll find some ideas for these below, along with some suggestions as to areas you could look at to find improvements.

Autonomy. On a scale of 1-10 how would you rate your workplace in terms of the level of autonomy that your team is given to work? How does the management style of the agency impact on the autonomy levels of the team? How much freedom does the work that your agency wins give your team? What do your clients expect from you?

What could you do to increase your Autonomy score?

  • Change the type of work you pursue: What choices are you making in terms of the work you go after and accept? Does this work give you the scope to release autonomy or is it more “jobbing” design work?’
  • Change the way you manage your team: how much space do you give your designers to work and how clear are they about what’s expected of them?
  • Expand the work your designers do: introduce some time to work on “off-piste ideas” or pro-bono projects.

Mastery. On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your team’s desire to improve and become better at what they do? Are they showing a desire to improve and get better? How would you know?

What could you do to increase your Mastery score?

  • Change your approach to development – think about your agency as a learning organisation and then share this idea with your team.
  • Expand your appraisal process – add in a section for personal development where you can discuss with your team what their career goals are and where they would like to be stretched more.
  • Change the way you acknowledge forward movement – look for all and any signs of change and publicly applaud and discuss what was learned.

Purpose. On a scale of 1-10, how clear are your team members on the wider purpose of the business? And how their role connects with this purpose? When was the last time it was discussed? Is the purpose publicly available?

What could you do to increase your Purpose score?

  • Change the question: ask not “What do we do?” but start with “Why do we do it?” and work outwards via “How do we do it?” to “What?”.
  • Open up debate: ask the team for their ideas – particularly the “How do we do it?” part.
  • Sharpen the goals: agree clear and measurable goals that will point to the progress and alignment of the business with its purpose.

These are not the only questions to ask of course but they hopefully give you a starting point to create some useful probing.

Think of Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose as the indicators of well-being within your business and you can create an index that can be measured alongside the numbers to give an overall “fitness score” for your business and the people within it. You could call it your AMP rating. Happy 2015!

John Scarrott is membership director at the Design Business Association. His DBA blog, Conversations With, is here.

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