Creative teams thrive on flexibility, turning out some of their best work when given the freedom to explore, experiment and push boundaries. But, sometimes too much of a good thing can be, well, too much. 

A laissez faire, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach can in many circumstances become an obstacle to creativity and productivity. Disorganization can paralyze teams, causing even the best to become smothered by work chaos.

A lack of clear direction, continuous rework, too many meetings and not enough uninterrupted time to get work done all curtail creativity, prohibit productivity and sap creative team members’ enthusiasm and energy for the work.

The secret to maintaining a healthy balance is to add the ideal amount of process and systems to keep everyone organized, without allowing the structure itself to get in the way. Here’s how creative project managers can ensure your team has the freedom to do their best work while still remaining on deadline.

1. Enforce the use of creative briefs 

You’ve no doubt heard the phrase, “measure twice, cut once.” Creative briefs enable this mistake-free environment by setting the strategy, tone and key messages for any project up front. This practice eliminates confusion, rework and conflicts over expectations and goals that can erupt mid-stream.

Creative project managers may already know that they should be using creative briefs, but surprisingly only 16 percent of in-house teams do, and of those teams that do use them, 60 percent do so only for highly creative, high-concept tier 1 projects

Using creative briefs forces managers to identify strategic objectives for their projects to guide with prioritization, and when multiple stakeholders are involved, creative briefs force them to agree on what they want to see before the review and approval process. This helps projects move quicker and smoother from start to finish and avoids delays in the proofing process.

The last thing your team needs is to invest precious time in reworking projects that are already supposed to have been completed -- eliminating this hassle could have a huge impact on productivity and profitability. 

2. Implement a formal, digital proofing and approval system

Proofing and approval can be a nightmare, especially when multiple stakeholders are involved. Each wants to weigh in, provide input and have their feedback heard. If someone doesn’t respond quickly, the entire project is held up until they kick it forward -- unless there’s conflicting feedback, in which case the project can quickly take a giant leap backwards. This puts the creative team in an awkward position of not knowing which input to implement, which to ignore, or how to compromise, all while feeling tremendous pressure to still meet impending deadlines. Digital proofing and approval systems can resolve this problem, bring order to the chaos and help the entire team stay organized and on track.

Creative project managers should upload proofs to a single, shared location that everyone can access, so that stakeholders can view and discuss suggested edits before the creative team starts making the changes. This will eliminate the usual back-and-forth and conflicting feedback. The entire organization can see where projects lie in the queue, and it helps the creative team avoid proceeding without proper authorization and achieve accountability, while staying on track to meet deadlines and expectations.

3. Allow for flexible work hours/environments

Ever have a “light bulb” experience -- that moment when the solution to a problem suddenly comes to you in a flash of brilliance? That moment can happen at any time: in the shower, at the park, on the train. Maybe you’re a morning person, who does your best work from 4 am to noon. Or, perhaps the frenetic energy of a local coffee shop fuels your inspiration. 

Managers must recognize that creativity doesn’t always follow a set schedule. Ideas, designs and concepts can emerge anywhere at anytime, and some people naturally work better “after hours” or in unstructured environments. Overall, creatives work best when assigned “the work that needs to get done,” not “the hours that need to be worked.”

Part of the challenge for employers in allowing this flexibility is trust -- they fear employees won’t get their work done without constant oversight. Yet, studies show that employees have a far higher level of engagement and are more productive when they have more freedom in when and where they work. And it’s important to note that already roughly one-quarter of creatives say they spend less than two hours a day actually doing creative work at the office, with meetings, status updates, email, and other interruptions hampering their creativity and productivity. 

Tools like laptops, tablets and smartphones make it easy to enable this type of work flexibility, while also maintaining accountability. Nearly half of creatives already use mobile devices on their own to capture inspiration and record ideas on the go, and 30 percent say they would like to create more using tablets. By providing the right tools, including access to cloud-based services for work request management, tracking project status, proofing, approvals, etc., managers can empower their creatives to work wherever and whenever is best for them, providing the perfect blend of structure and freedom that fuels outstanding work.

Structure without smothering

Smothering a team with red tape, excessive protocol and processes that add to their already overwhelming burden can kill every last shred of creativity. But when creative project managers add just the right amount of structure, they can actually unleash even more creativity by relieving they’re team of the burden of busywork, rework and wasted time. By eliminating these obstacles, creatives will have far more time to do what they do best: create.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic LicenseTitle image by  idea ablaze