Question: Driving discipline in a team of creatives

I head the research and development in a company which makes kitchen utensils. Through a recent reorganization, I now oversee the design department, as well, which houses our creative brainpower.

This has been a semi-autonomous team for a long time, doing great but unpredictable and diffused work. Through the reorganization we are trying to narrow our focus on new product introductions.

I need your advice to drive some discipline in a team of 12 designers. Simple things like arriving to meetings on time, to entering their labor hours in our time tracking system, and eventually, meeting agreed milestone deadlines.

4 Expert Insights

This is a tough call. As someone who is a creative, and has led or managed teams of creatives, what motivates best is a culture of freedom and excellence. It is always a challenge to impose procedural frameworks around creatives as there is a very fine line between just enough to keep them focused and delivering on time - versus imposing perceived restrictions on their "innate" right to freedom. One approach might be to break them up into 3 clusters of four each with a self-appointed leader to act more as a peer-to-peer coach. You then need to incentify that individual to get their peers compliant in meeting the goals you establish - such as improving consistency in utilizing the time tracking system, reporting to meetings on time, and meeting milestones. By changing the governance structure somewhat and returning it to the ranks with a peer coach, they may respond more favorably because they experience compliance from a level perspective, almost as self-interested, and not so top-down. Good luck!

You describe an "uncoupled" organizational culture, typical of many teams charged with creating innovative designs.  Moving to a culture more focused on new product introductions without stifling creativity (a "loosely coupled" culture) will require gaining Buy-in to the desired culture shift.

The process of choice for this shift is "Deep Democracy" where all of the voices in the system are heard in refining the team's more focused values, purpose, vision, and priorities.

  The desired culture shift will require more of a reorganization of individual perspectives that a reorganization of individual roles.  Entrenched habits resist any change that feels like coercion.  The process will require at least six months of "leadership listening" to complete.

It sounds as though you have the proverbial job of herding cats... congratulations! Interestingly, there is plenty of evidence that some degree of job autonomy contributes to job satisfaction for most, probably especially true for creative types. What makes autonomy work is a corresponding level of accountability: freedom to do the job your way in return for results that answer for quality, quantity, cost, and timeliness.

Perhaps your greatest challenge may be a perception that the introduction of discipline is a takeaway... your team of 12 designers views it as a loss. Can you turn it into a win? How about engaging the team in a strategic dialogue about the impact of effective design leading to successful new products leading to more resources to invest in a healthy productive organization. Or maybe a discussion about designers as professionals, i.e. self managing. In any case I suspect you will get further by presenting the situation as a challenge for the group to solve than by becoming proscriptive.

I’d pick one area to start. The example you gave that struck me was failure to arrive to meetings on time. This behavior not only wastes everybody’s time, it is a sign of disrespect to the other members of the team.

I might suggest a session with the team to dialog the question; “What are your suggestions for making our meetings more effective?” As the boss, I think you are entitled to add your suggestion and even mandate an action. I would point out how disrespectful being late for meetings is to the other members of the team as it can cause them to waste time waiting for late arrivals or repeating things that have already been covered. (If people are late because the meetings are badly planned, you should identify actions to fix that too.)

I have seen several organizations implement a fine for people who arrive late, maybe $5. (At executive levels, I have seen much higher fines, but the amount isn’t important.) The fines can go into a pot and after the pot reaches a certain amount it can be used for something special for the whole group – a pizza lunch, beers after work, donuts, etc. Either the problem will get fixed or your group will enjoy a lot of treats thanks to the tardy members.