Leading the way to a successful team

It’s all very well having a creative genius at the helm of a company, but a new study shows that if leadership skills are lacking, output will suffer. Bhavna Mistry reports

The pressures to be innovative and ever-more creative have never been absent from the design industry. Neither has the constant criticism that many consultancies don’t deliver in this respect. Of course, one of the reasons is the reluctance of clients to move on from the tried and tested, to encourage revolution rather than evolution.

But a major reason could be the staff dynamics of creative groups in consultancies, and who leads them. Many organisations stifle creativity because their managers – while they may be very creative individuals – lack the skills to lead creative teams successfully, according to a new study.

Put together over a two year period by John Whatmore, an independent management consultant and visiting research fellow at Roffey Park Management Institute, the study does provide some hope. According to Whatmore’s findings, effective team leaders in all sectors of industry have common characteristics which enable creativity within a group, rather than stifle it. The key lies in choosing a successful team leader.

Whatmore’s research is based on a sample group of 38 “first line leaders” – who would be responsible for creative projects – drawn from all sectors of industry, including Aziz Cami of The Partners, who was on the advisory board. By and large, the skills and talents of people who manage or lead creative groups appear to be distinctively different from other managers. “It’s more to do with developing individuals and their talents, and creating or sustaining culture and climate, rather than achieving specific objectives,” says Whatmore.

While creative people are often regarded as difficult or impossible to manage, some managers seem to have a gift for getting the best out of talented people. Generally, effective team leaders shared certain skills: a vision of what could be achieved, so they retained credibility within the group; an enhanced empathy for those who worked for them, so they could better evaluate what was happening; and the vast majority of leaders whose project groups were successful were technical experts in their own fields.

More specifically for design, Whatmore’s final study project was carried out at The Partners. The project was led by David Stuart, a founding partner at the consultancy. Whatmore’s observations of Stuart and his team could lead to another study looking at the same topic, but specifically within design. He is currently trying to get together a group of five top-flight designers to investigate creative management in design further, and he hopes for support from the Design Council. This subsequent study is still in its very early stages, but Whatmore says differences in Stuart’s approach to managing a creative team from others in the sample were “interesting and significant”.

Stuart had a “combative determination to maintain the integrity of his idea, with the leader’s mark. He was concerned that the concept shouldn’t be eaten away by small changes, and if you have to maintain the integrity of the idea, you are not allowing for the breadth of freedom you’d hope for”, says Whatmore.

Stuart counters that this is something every designer has a responsibility to do, to prevent the idea from becoming diluted.

Stuart’s structuring of the group also drew Whatmore’s interest. “There seems to be a habit of structure in the design industry, where aspects of the task are clearly identified and given to specific people,” says Whatmore.

The most interesting finding concerned generating ideas. Stuart and his team were “spontaneous generators of ideas – most people draw from other people, literature and such in an interactive way – but the ideas of Stuart and his team came from themselves, which reflects what happens in design”, says Whatmore.

On the whole, both Cami and Stuart agree that the study has revealed some “fascinating” findings. Both are surprised at the number of correlations and similarities, despite the differences in industry sectors and the varying perceptions of creativity within each sector.

Whatmore will be presenting fuller findings of his study at a conference in October at Roffey Park. Much can be drawn from the wider project, but for designers, the specific findings of research into design could help to build even more creative groups. Watch this space.

Characteristics to look out for in choosing a successful team leader

Go for someone who:

Has a strategic understanding of the field – someone who has a vision of what can be achieved

Can choose team members who have complementary differences

Can select team members who see problems as challenges that will help them to develop their own creative talents

Can help team members to get to know each other quickly, so they are able to appreciate and take advantage of each other’s perspectives, skills and abilities

Is a developer of the creative skills and talents of team members

Gives team members the freedom to inspire themselves, but keeps in close touch

Is able to stimulate team members by generating creative tensions between them

Is empathetic and approachable

Is fluid and flexible, and willing to lend a hand where she or he can

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