Managing highly creative people is a tough job. Whether you're dealing with a computer programmer, an engineer, or a copywriter, effective management requires allowing the employee the freedom to make mistakes. It also means setting and enforcing deadlines and giving the recognition that counts.

The hardest thing for the manager of a smaller company to learn when dealing with creative people is not to overmanage them. "You build creative muscle the same way you build real muscle," says Tom Connellan, author of How to Grow People into Self Starters. "You add weights one at a time. But if you keep running in and lifting the weights for your staff, they're never going to build any creative muscle."

The overbearing manager typically gives double messages. He says, "Take risks," but really means "Don't make, mistakes." Or he says, "Be creative," but means "Don't surprise me." If employees aren't making mistakes or surprising you, chances are they're insecure, afraid of failing, and aren't pushing themselves to their creative limits.

Michael Corboy, president of TOCOM Inc., a Dallas manufacturer of two-way cable television equipment, has found that it works to manage over the coffee machine and in other informal settings where he can ask questions and offer encouragement to his engineers. "My role is to nurture my staff's ideas, while keeping them out of blind alleys," says Corboy.

These coffee break sessions supplement formal monthly reviews when Corboy checks the progress of his engineers towards the goals they have already agreed on. "Good people want to be measured, but not every day," says Corboy.

Because of the way creative people work, deadlines are critical for almost any project. "Most creative people are used to fighting deadlines," says Andrew Crawford, president of Ascott Corp., a textile printing company in Ann Arbor, Mich. "But they do their best work as the deadline becomes imminent, and they'll never get anything done if you don't set one."

Sidney Green, president of Terra Tek, a cluster of seven high-technology companies in Salt Lake City, uses benchmarks to monitor research and development projects. Recently, one company received a contract to develop a mechanical system for measuring rock properties. When Green asked his project manager to put together a schedule that included benchmarks, Green got dates for completion of the design, machining of parts, assembly, debugging, and shipping. "I checked the dates to make sure they were reasonable," says Green, "and periodically we would sit down to see if they were being met."

Green explains that one of the keys to using benchmarks effectively is to use terms that the creative person responsible can understand. "If we have a scientist who doesn't like to be bothered with budgets," he says, "we'll set benchmarks related to technical accomplishments and then have someone else translate them into financial data."

In monitoring the progress of a project, Green insists that meeting periodically with employees is the only way to know how the project is going. "Creative people by nature will be creative in answering you on how they are doing. They'll say 'everything is great' but neglect to tell you they're 50% over budget. They don't perceive that as a problem."

Leo L. Beranek, former chief executive officer of several companies, says managing a creative department requires separation of business and creative functions. At Bolt Beranek and Newman Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., research and development firm specializing in computer technology and sound, Beranek instituted a dual-management system under which the creative and financial managers within a department report to different bosses.

While the technical manager oversees the creative part of the project, the business manager attempts to find ways to save money and to eliminate bottlenecks. If the technical group fails to keep on schedule or within the budget, the business manager sees that the problem is brought to the attention of top management. Says Beranek: "Creative people like the system because they can do their jobs better with less attention to red tape and financial matters, while meeting their goals on time and within budget."

Problems that threaten schedules frequently arise in the creative process; to resolve these before they seriously affect the project's budget, management must maintain frequent personal contact with employees. During a monthly review meeting on a software development program, Ray Cotten, CEO of Camsco Inc., in Richardson, Tex., saw that the project was beginning to run behind schedule, so he called a meeting of all those involved.

The meeting revealed a serious breakdown in communications between the marketing department and the systems designers. The key designer on the project had become frustrated when he learned that those in marketing assumed the package would include features that he had not been told about at the outset. Instead of talking to management, the designer had become depressed and worked harder to solve a problem he couldn't realistically handle alone.

When Cotten made it clear he would get additional support to solve the problem, the designer was greatly relieved. "Often, programmers get so used to working in a problem environment," says Cotten, "backing off and going at a problem again and again, that they can't separate the ordinary problem from the extraordinary one until it's too late."

Besides regular monitoring and support, recognizing is critical. One of the tools Michael Corboy of TOCOM uses is memos, circulated around the company, commenting on an individual's good work. And, when the trade press picks up on a new development at TOCOM, Corboy makes certain that the engineers involved in the work get special mention. Finally, he uses company picnics and Christmas parties to let spouses know how well their mates are doing.

"Creative individuals work for people, not companies," says Andrew Crawford, Ascott's president. He claims the best way to reconize the achievements of an employee is by doing unexpected things. Crawford will give his designer time off, or the opportunity to work on a project the designer has been pushing for. "If you give them something they weren't expecting, they think 'The boss cares about me." Crawford keeps his reward system informal, and he doesn't promise things ahead of time.

Another CEO cautions against taking credit for the work of your creative staff. "It's awfully tempting in a small company where the CEO is the focal point to take credit for everything Don't steal your people's thunder."

Published on: Dec 1, 1981