How to manage creativity

Picture of Matthew Stibbe
Posted by Matthew Stibbe

I came across this speech transcript when I was writing a piece about managing geeks. I wrote it eons ago when I was running Intelligent Games (IG), a computer games company. I’m sure that I didn’t always practice what I preached but looking back some of the points still seem pretty valid for how to manage creativity more generally.

Target Audience

The core audience for this talk include development managers, project leaders, and game designers – people on the boundaries of development and management.  A broader audience includes any involved in game development who is interested in the development process as a whole (rather than functional specialisations within it like programming or scheduling) and how they fit into it. Or indeed anyone who has to manage creativity.

Introduction to managing creativity

Creativity is the hub around which this industry revolves. We need creativity to develop original game ideas, of course, but it goes way beyond that. Creativity produces effective programming solutions, innovative gameplay, better user interfaces, cool special effects, efficient optimisations, ever-better graphics and, ultimately, more customer satisfaction and therefore sales.  My premise is that creative genius is vital for successful games but that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  My talk will be about the balance and boundaries between creativity and management and how to manage creativity effectively.

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Sources of creativity

In descending order of utility, this is a list of the possible sources of creativity in development.

  1. The team
  2. In-house producers
  3. Client producers
  4. Outside experiences (books, conferences etc.)
  5. The rest of the world and then…
  6. … Management

At IG, we believe in the primacy of the team as the source of creative solutions to their development issues and in particular we hold to the belief that management should not design games.  We have learnt this lesson through bitter experience but also by starting from the principles of empowering individuals and delegating responsibility as far down the system as possible. 

Ways to obstruct creativity

People get into this business because they want to be creative.  It is easier to kill existing imagination than it is to encourage it.  Here are some classic ways to pour cold water on bright sparks:

  • Ignoring people’s input – especially when management overrides it.
  • Alienating team members by allowing dominant people to control the creative process.
  • Allowing people who are not directly involved in the process to dominate it (this is particularly true of producers and clients) rather than inform it.
  • Not providing a forum for debate and brain storming.
  • No discipline for agreeing and recording decisions.
  • The tyranny of the weak – “it can’t be done because….”
  • Messing up hygiene factors, such as pay, appraisals, expenses, promotions etc.  These can be strong demotivators.

Above all, though, it is a question of confidence.  It is very easy to slip into negativity and hard to break out of it.

‘We can destroy ourselves with cynicism and disillusion just as easily as with bombs’ – (Kenneth Clarke).

How to manage creativity

There are many proven ways for management to encourage creativity in a team environment.

  • Notice it
  • Regular team sanity checks
  • Reward it
  • Systematise it
  • Request it
  • Delegate it
  • Build individual and team ownership

In managing creativity, one of the key tasks of a leader is to understand the problem space and help people define it and then work within it to solve the problem.  The list above are all examples of how this works in practice.  The abstraction and objectivity of a partial outsider helps put creative issues into context and can help the team match the right solutions to the right problems and avoid false trails.

The role of motivation in creativity

Management textbooks and studies show that recognition, ownership, and responsibility are key psychological motivators.  The role of management here is to build them into your development process and make sure that your management structure permits and encourages them.  One of the most challenging aspect of this for a manager is learning to let go – being freer with information and delegating precious responsibility.  I want to cover two aspects in more detail: building a creative environment and build structures that nurture creativity.

Building an innovative environment

Everyone in the company has a responsibility to build a positive culture within the company, but generally management takes the lead and senior management often sets the tone for the whole company.  It is also important to remember that in rapidly growing companies, decisions made early grow in effect in proportion to the size of the company and are often very hard to reverse later.  This is a list of some attributes of a creative environment:

  • Tolerance of honest mistakes – providing people learn from them.
  • Good timely feedback – people shouldn’t be expected to mark their own exam papers.
  • Giving experience a voice.  It’s easy in a young industry for people to believe they know ALL the answers.  Better to learn whatever you can from others rather than make the mistakes yourself.
  • Mutual respect.
  • Everyone has fun.  Fun builds teams, self confidence, communication, morale and respect.
  • Commonly accepted high standards – creativity doesn’t mean anarchy or lower expectations.
  • Open to suggestions.
  • Forums and rituals for communication (e.g. team brainstorming).
  • Effective team behaviour.

The sum of all these parts is a philosophy we call ‘Team Democracy’.  It has all the attributes of real-world democracy – freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the right to a vote and (for Americans, at least) the pursuit of happiness – but it also carries some of the responsibilities and disciplines.  For example, you have to participate, you have work within its rules and you have to accept and live by the decisions of a majority.  It is interesting to extend the analogy to the role of management – in a democracy, people look to leaders not dictators to help them achieve their goals.

The role of team structures

A producer is ultimately responsible for the project’s quality and timeliness as the most senior manager who deals with the project and team on a daily basis.  She or he deals with project management and personnel issues, provides an objective viewpoint onto the project, is the main interface for the project to the outside world and acts as a ‘court of appeal’ for the team.

At IG, an assistant producer is a team member responsible for scheduling, testing and other project related administrative issues.  They also act as team archivist and general factotum.  It is important for the team to see these roles as an integral part of the development process and not as an adversarial, alien imposition and for this reason we insist on a peer-to-peer relationship between assistant producers and the rest of the team.

Each project needs a team leader.  At IG, where the size of the project and the experience of the individual merit it; a project has a ‘project director’.  They are always team members with a constructive role on the project, either as an AP, an artist or programmer, and their role is to direct the creative process and share the projects vision.  The project directors are the focus of the team democracy process acting as chairman rather than president, as befits their ‘first among equals’ status.  They are also responsible for team morale, setting standards and being a figurehead for the project outside the team.  It is a demanding, diffuse and challenging role but also one of the most satisfying when done properly.

Building a team along these lines, in our experience, can dramatically improve a team’s level of creativity.

Manage creativity, well, creatively

We have found that creativity, like a flame, cannot exist in a vacuum – it needs the oxygen of discipline and the spark of leadership to exist.  Management has a central role in building a creative company but for it to be effective it has to work with developers to define the boundaries of responsibility, to build bridges between disparate functions and to build a team structure and culture that supports disciplined creativity.

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