How to scale creative teams in your startup

A creative expert’s take on scaling up a creative team at a startup.

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How to scale creative teams in your startup

Due to its immense pace and agility, the startup environment can be a tough space for the creatives to navigate. They rarely have the luxury of time to craft, pitch, and receive buy-in for campaign briefs from key stakeholders. When the product pivots during the development cycle, they spend significant time managing communication, leaving little time for effective planning and brainstorming.

As creative teams struggle to keep up with requests from various departments, mistakes and miscommunication often occur. For inexperienced leaders, false impressions of a subpar team may arise. They may erroneously feel that their team is unable to perform under pressure. Reacting and addressing them as such could lead to a creative force with a high churn rate and a similarly high level of dissatisfaction and inefficiency.

Founders and managers can underestimate the importance of keeping the churn rate low for their creative teams. When employees leave, the creative vision may not be communicated effectively to their successors. Manpower costs accrued from hiring and training new employees can quickly pile up and add to the financial burden of a startup.

As team leaders, we often screen and hire creative talents based on their past works and output. If we care about the competence and strength of our creatives, is it not only fair to help them construct a conducive and productive environment in which they can maximise their potential?

In a startup where employees are generally inexperienced and require more guidance, it is possible to train and develop the creative team in a scalable and sustainable way. If you are a leader of the creative team in your startup, here’s how you can take simple steps to help your creatives perform optimally.

Build a robust and transparent workflow with clearly defined roles

In most creative teams, each member only handles a portion of the content creation process. Take the production of an infographic series, for example: the marketing manager plans the concept; a content marketer drafts the copy; a designer puts the infographic together, and the social media manager targets it to the right audience.

Avoid assuming that every team member has perfect understanding of their job scope, and how to manage and prioritize their tasks. Occasionally, grey areas surface, and the proverbial ball can drop between two members due to miscommunication and misaligned expectations.

You may choose to set up a detailed standard operating procedure (SOP) for the team to follow. It serves as a guideline on communication ground rules and styles between members, and gets everyone on the same page on the execution of recurring workflows.

As your team grows and projects change in scope and depth, SOPs may grow increasingly irrelevant. Revisit and edit your SOP accordingly, and update your members on new changes. SOPs can also help in onboarding new members.

Project management tools are helpful in monitoring workflow and spotting early bottlenecks. One great tool to use is Trello, where members can consolidate and update their progress across different projects.

Provide a single source of truth

Learn to manage new information and its accuracy before it reaches your team. If you are in middle management, you may benefit from fully understanding strategic directions from upper management. Then, try to break it down into digestible tasks that your team can undertake without being confused by a vague overarching vision.

Being the first recipient of new information helps you to delegate workload in a more balanced way. Look out for other team leaders or senior management bypassing you to speak directly to your team. To avoid dealing with conflicting instructions, guide your team on how to tactfully direct all new information to you first. Serve your team as the trustworthy gatekeeper of truth.

Less micromanagement; more room for experimentation

Micromanaging the team early in the ideation process can prevent it from reaching its maximum creative potential. Members may feel obliged to please you instead of pursuing innovative ideas to engage your customers and users. A creative team that focuses only on pleasing the leader can become ineffective, repressed, and fearful.

Moderate conversations during ideation meetings without priming the discussion. If you wish to encourage your members to actively contribute without fear of judgment, try setting up a system where they can submit their campaign ideas anonymously before the meeting.

Give considerable room for the team to experiment. Only focusing on your competitors can limit the growth of your company. Sole imitation of your competitors’ campaign ideas will not give rise to positive brand differentiation. Giving your team certain creative autonomy and the opportunity to fail safely can be surprisingly beneficial to your campaigns.

Give constructive feedback

Very few campaigns are perfect on the first iteration. Leaders need to learn to challenge creatives critically, directly, and tactfully. Because quality is not binary and artistic inclinations differ, giving creative feedback can sometimes be awkward.

Practise radical candor and meet team members personally to deliver feedback. Start by understanding the conception and creation process, and if they feel the work has addressed the campaign brief well. Ask questions without being overly aggressive, and allow them to elaborate. Explain how you feel about their work to help them see from the average user’s perspective.

Do your best to provide concrete solutions to problems you raise. This is different from spoon-feeding or micromanaging; on the contrary, creatives often appreciate concise and constructive insight over guesswork and muddy expectations. Elaborate on your feedback and suggested solutions. For example, ‘I think the colours are too dull and the text too small. I suggest picking brighter colours and increasing the font size of the headers for easier reading’ is far more actionable than ‘I don’t think your infographic is eye-catching enough’.

Leading and managing a creative team can be tricky, particularly if your team is young. Unlike the generations before us, millennials are exposed to myriad sources of inspiration from social channels like YouTube, Pinterest, and Instagram, and are more likely to demand instant gratification and feedback for their work. Managing expectations and maintaining healthy team dynamics will prove to be a worthy and worthwhile challenge.

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The story was written by Alan Seng, for tips and management tactics on scaling your creative team in startups, feel free to share with him by commenting on this article or tweet him at @alanseng.