Harvard Business Review's "7 Rules for Managing Creative People" - A Rebuttal
The Harvard Business review recently published a blog titled "7 Rules for Managing Creative People." Sound interesting? Well too bad, because the article's actually terrible!
What do I mean by "terrible" exactly? I mean stupid. I mean insulting. I mean condescending. I mean so jammed with illogical, specious reasoning that to read it is to know the heart of all humanity's failures-a whirling, black void rimmed with ravenous, tree-sized tentacles whispering "Best practicesssss" through their toothed suction-grips as they flail and grasp spasmodically, hungering for the around flesh of your neck.
So, obviously, I didn't like the article very much. But so what? I hate lots of things. Airports, babies, people in general, peaches, fur coats and baseball. Zooey Deschanel, Seth Macfarlane, and for reasons I can't quite articulate, Kate Hudson.
The difference here is that, unlike what I think about Zooey Deschanel or baseball or peaches, how we think about the "creative" professions matters, especially in our industry when like 90 percent of the people in it could be described as "creatives."
I don't know enough about The Harvard Business Review blogs to tell you how much they influence business and management culture. I can tell you though, that as a "creative," a lot of the ideas expressed in the article are old enemies-bad conceptions and psychological traps that have haunted both artists and managers since the two first started working with each other. The ideas, if not the blog post itself, are worth addressing, for the sake of our shared managerial sanity.
Give the original article a read here. Note also that since I first read the article, the blog's author has changed the title of the post. From "7 Rules for Managing Creative People" to "Seven Rules for Managing Creative-But-Difficult People" after the outcry his blog caused. Similarly, point #5 of the post was also changed, though the original title was left readable, via strikethrough. Neither of these changes alter my core complaints about the post, but are worth mentioning all the same.
I thought about doing an in-depth sentence-by-sentence analysis of the article, but since that would take me half the week to write and I surely don't have time for that, instead here are my three core complaints about the Harvard Business Review's "7 Rules for Managing Creative People."
1. "Creatives" is one of the worst words in the English language
This might seem like nitpicking, but I think using the word "creative" as a noun for a person who does creative work creates an issue of clarity that cuts the legs out from the whole article. It's confusing and argument-destroying because, what exactly is a "creative?" A graphic designer? A copywriter? A salesperson? All of these professions do creative work, and all of them are going to have psychological traits specific to their group that separate them from the others. They're going to think about the world in different ways, have different wants, needs and skills that will make it difficult to pin down their behavior with any kind of granularity.
For what the author is attempting in the post, a guide to managing creatives based on tightly specific behavior patterns, it would have benefited him to be more specific as to what kind of creative he was talking about. Writers, painters, marketers, even "artists" would have been better. Once you pull back to the level of "a person who does creative work," the descriptor has gotten broad and vague enough to essentially lose all meaning. Most companies are going to have employees who have to do creative work now and again, be they ad writers or accountants, so using creativity as a differentiator is complicated and not really helpful. Is "creative" an all-or-nothing label, and if so, how creative does someone have to be to earn it? Do they have to be designing T-shirts all day, or just ¾ of the day? Half? What kind of work do they have to be doing? Does it have to be art, or can it be something like computer programming? Sales? Management?
Creativity is in a great deal of what we do in the corporate world. Using it as a label is pointless, and at best, only serves to confuse who and what you're talking about. At the worst, it makes your argument broad to the point that you're just talking about people, trying to define them by a category that, for the most part, doesn't exist and therefor doesn't confer specific behaviors on its inhabitants.
2. From a management perspective, applying tight generalities to human behavior is stupid
If you're a marketing strategist for Kelloggs or whatever, and you want to make decisions off some generality, like "Men ages 18-to-24 love video games," that's fine. Maybe you've found some market research that shows 80 percent of that demographic plays video game three times a week, maybe you've purchased age statistics directly from Microsoft and Sony. Whatever you've done, you've got enough statistical data to verify your generality as "mostly true," and can safely launch your new video-game themed cereal product, Call of Duty: Marshmallow edition to great fanfare, profit and career advancement.
But, I would argue that the generalized statistical/behavioral thinking illustrated above is only useful at the big, tens of thousands of people scale. Once you drop down to the management level, where it's likely you're directly interacting with far fewer people, say between five and 100, the individual personality traits of subordinates are going to start gumming up any generality-based personality theories you're trying to apply.
The Harvard blog post makes a lot of generalized claims about what creatives do and don't like. They don't like pressure, they don't like routine, they don't like mundane work. These are all fine and (possibly) true generalizations to make the large-scale level. Maybe 70 percent of writers do hate pressure. Maybe 85 percent of graphic designers do hate routine. But what happens when you move away from the broad, general level and try to apply this reasoning to the specific team your managing?
The problem with generalizations is, even if they're true at all (which they're often not), they're only true in the broadest sense. Writers may not like pressure, but maybe your copywriter does. Maybe he thrives off it. Graphic designers may not like routine, but maybe the one that works for you does. When possible, I would strongly advise making your management decisions with "creatives" based off your personal knowledge of them, and not whatever generalities you think should be applied.
Example: I'm a writer who likes pressure. I write well when constrained by deadlines and sometimes struggle to write if I have too much time to work. I also like structure. I come to work the same time every day, taking the same route and sitting in the same train seat if I can. I drink the same coffee every morning, eat the same breakfast, and read the same news sites. I like routine, I like order, I like pressure, and I would absolutely be defined as a "creative" professional. If someone were attempt to manage me with the rules set out in the Harvard blog, could I adapt and deal with them? Sure. But would the manager be wasting both our time with guidelines and concessions that I don't need or want? Could my potential be hamstrung with rules that, instead of encouraging my strengths, emphasizes my weaknesses instead?
Definitely questions worth considering, and also ones you will not be able to answer unless you take the time to know your employees well, creative or otherwise.
3. Creative people like money just fine
Point #5 on the Harvard blog, "Pay [creatives] poorly/Don't overpay them," is terrible and insulting and wrong on so many levels, but unfortunately (present employer aside), it's an attitude I've found to be incredibly common toward the "traditionally creative" professions. My answer to this stance is a simple one, and it goes like this:
Go ahead and pay me poorly. I'll be out the door as soon as I find someone who pays more.
Job satisfaction is a complicated thing, and I'm not suggesting that money is the only component of it that matters, but if you're not paying your employees, creative or otherwise, as competitively as possible, you better be ready to lose them as soon as the ink dries on their updated resumes. Just because I like to write and be creative doesn't mean I don't have financial obligations and goals that require as much money as I can get my hands on. Kids, student loans, mortgages, "creatives" have them just as "normals" do. Believing that "creative" employees work for reasons other than money is fine, as long as you can believe that it's really them walking out the door when a competitor decides to pay them better.
Anyway that's all I have to say about the Harvard blog I guess. It sure was terrible! Thanks for reading, and see you all next week!
MONDAY MIKE FACT: I sometime take dumb blog posts too personally.