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Delegating Creative Work without Asking Your Team to Paint by Numbers

“I started out just making cool design,” an early client once said to me, “Now I’m in charge of 50 people, making sure they do all their work.”  And from the stress and excitement in that client’s voice and expression, it was clear that it was creating tension. Sure, you could produce on your own and all the empowering mantras that it can spark (You’ll be your own boss! Only responsible for you! The freedom!), but on the flip side, how much can an individual produce? One source of output limits your production capacity. It captures one of the predominant dynamics of being a leader of a creative team—how to delegate effectively.

Delegation can be a tricky business, especially when it comes to a creative endeavor.  It requires that you share your vision in such a way that someone else gets that vision and then, gets it so well that they can produce something that resembles what you had initially envisioned.  This is fraught with opportunities for misunderstanding, unclarity, and sub-standard results.

WHY DELEGATE CREATIVE WORK?

But why delegate in the first place?  Many reasons.  Primarily, so that you can better leverage your time and energy as a leader.  If you can clearly communicate your vision, your team can produce exponentially faster than you can alone.  Delegation also allows you to grow yourself and your team.  I like to envision three levels where work occurs by focusing on being a teacher on the level below you, a worker on the level you are on, and a student on the level above you.  But in order to step forward into new work, some work needs to be left behind for others.

I’m reminded of a client who was eyeing a promotion and identifying all the new roles they were looking to assume.  My question: “Who’s doing all the work you won’t be able to do once you step into those new roles?” Through discussion, this client realized the necessity to delegate, but which work? That’s where we worked through additional resistance. We agreed it made the most sense to delegate the work they did well and could do almost with their “eyes closed.” Why?  Because we tend to place so much self-value with the work we do well, we’re eager to hold on to it to prove our value to ourselves and to the world around us.  Ultimately, that may not be the work that is truly challenging us and helping us to grow.

For a quick exercise, ask yourself right now, “What’s something I do well that might not be the most dynamic, leveraged use of my time?”  Could that be handed off to someone else?  If so, what would you do with the increased bandwidth in your world?  Learn a new skill?  Step into a new role?  Focus on higher-level concerns?

“Progress always involves risk,” said Frederick B. Wilcox, “You can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first.”  Consider how your team will feel once you delegate new roles to them: confident, empowered, important, vital.  Of course, I’m not suggesting you delegate and/or promote blindly.  You absolutely need to have the right team in place to do any of what I’m suggesting above.  At the same time, your team should also go through the same process: How will they hand off their work to create the space for what you just gave them?

HOW TO DELEGATE CREATIVE WORK

Once you have decided to start to delegate work, please consider that humans are not robots.  That should be obvious enough, but if we ask our team to simply recreate what we have in mind, we are ignoring the fact that a human brings their own experience, talents, and ideas to the creative process.  As a team leader, ideally you would want them to feel like they are able to contribute that to their work.  If they are just duplicating your vision and “painting by numbers,” then there’s really no room for them to express themselves. It’s likely they will eventually seek out another opportunity where they can do so.

Once you decide it’s time to delegate, it’s crucial that you communicate clearly and completely.  Here’s what I recommend:

  • Communicate the purpose of the work: Why is it important? What benefit will it bring to the team, the organization, or the client/customer? This will go a long way to making sure you are getting the output you really want, and at the same time will guide your team’s decisions when questions arise.
  • Communicate any important parameters: timing, budget, internal and external resources available (or unavailable). A good frame will rein in your more expansive thinkers from breaking rules that you don’t want broken, while giving them permission to stretch in key areas. Very useful for those on your team who too often don’t “think outside the box.”
  • Communicate your picture of success: What’s the outcome you’re seeking? Again, allow your team to bring their own creativity to the process, but communicate the output you envision, as well as the impact it will have on key stakeholders. That will go a long way toward getting you the results you want.

Let’s also consider the manner in which you are communicating your vision.  I had a client who was very fond of saying in meetings “you know what I mean…” even though their team very often did NOT know what they meant.  Because the person was the BOSS, no one felt comfortable piping up and saying “No, I actually don’t know what you mean. Can you be more specific, or say it in a different way?”  The team did not want to appear ignorant or suggest that their boss was not being clear.

If you are a leader, it’s up to you to overcome these obstacles.  One way is to check for understanding.  A blunt way of phrasing that is “Tell me what I just said to you.” A better way of phrasing it is “What do you think about what I just said?” Then listen closely to what is said to see if you and your team are congruent in understanding what it is you want done.

While we’re discussing communication styles, let’s also talk about high/speedy talkers and low/slow talkers.  If you ask a slow or low talker a question, be prepared to sit through an awkward silence until they are ready to respond.  If you are a speedy/high talker yourself, you might find that this pushes on your comfort zone for silence between two or more people.  As a presenter myself, I can tell you that we are encouraged to wait nine seconds after asking a question to wait for an answer from an audience; you read that correctly, nine seconds.  And it can feel like a lifetime! Why? So that your audience can go through the thought process: “Do I have a question? I do have a question!  Oh, but is that a good question?  Am I willing to ask that question?”  That time that you invest will go a long way to ensure that your message is being accurately communicated.

MAKING SURE DELEGATED CREATIVE WORK GETS DONE

In addition to making sure you are communicating accurately, as a leader it is also contingent upon you to track the work that is being done.  This means monitoring progress so that you guarantee the work is being done on time and to the standard that is important to you.  There’s a spectrum here: too much monitoring will annoy your team and stifle their creativity, while not enough monitoring may lead to blown deadlines, sub-standard results or divergent work.

We also must acknowledge that some members of your team need more monitoring, while others need less.  As a leader, it is your job to navigate these waters delicately, but consistently.  In a perfect world, everyone would do their work in a timely fashion.  We don’t live in that world.  People often don’t really feel their work is a priority until you ask/remind/pester them about their progress.  This, therefore, requires tracking.  It requires you have some sort of trusted system in place where you can see all the commitments your team has made to you.

IS IT TOO MUCH?

So, we’re delegating, effectively communicating, checking for clarification and tracking this creative team of yours that we’ve empowered. Congratulations! Hmm… but are we productive? Maybe you’re concerned that you are loading your team with too much work when you delegate.  You might be.  Ideally, everyone on your team would be willing to speak up for themselves to say, “This is simply too much.”  This points to the value of having a strong team culture where leaders and team members can have the crucial conversations about how much work is too much work, how to prioritize work and how much must simply be done out of the necessity of the moment.

In certain creative worlds, jobs are highly sought after and for many open positions, there are dozens, if not hundreds of highly qualified applicants.  Does this mean it’s smart to wring the last bit of productivity from your team?  Not if you want them to stay.  Not if you want them to bring their best.

Does this then mean that you are not entitled to ask for superior results?  Absolutely not.  But just like you need to have a trusted system to track what has been promised to you, your staff needs to have a good trusted system to track their own commitments.  At the very least, I highly recommend weekly check-ins where you ask to see everything and anything that has been promised to you.  If your team member does not have that in a quickly accessible list format, then highly encourage them that they get that in order.  It will go a long way toward getting them focused on the right work in a timely fashion.

We’ve covered a lot of groundwork to make sure you set yourself (and your team) up for success with delegating creative. You might be tempted to think, “Too much work. Oh forget it, I’ll just do it myself!”  That is always an option, but hopefully you can see how putting this work in upfront will pay off in the long run, and be willing to follow these key suggestions which I have outlined in this article:

  • Be willing to let workflow to others.
  • Communicate purpose, values, and vision when you delegate.
  • Check for understanding.
  • Be judicious in how much you delegate.
  • Monitor progress appropriately.

I hope you have found value here.  I’d be eager to hear your thoughts. Please feel free to email me at hello@waynepepper.com

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