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Leadership and the management of creative groups.

BL

What do you consider the core message of your research?

JW

Tim Gallwey, in his book on Inner Tennis and Inner Golf talks about the mentality of performance. More recently his book on Inner Music discussed the style of conductors. Many conductors are indeed autocratic. That is one classical approach to orchestral performance. Gallwey's book suggests alternative approaches, one epitomised by Max Rudolf, disciplinarian and scholar, whose explanations of the historical context of the works he plays places commitment to the authenticity of his interpretation. Then there is Gunther Schuller (formerly a horn player) who likes to stop the rehearsals a little short of perfection so as to leave his musicians room to "rise to the occasion". Or, there is James Levine who describes the sound qualities and the emotional expression he is looking for and this creates a musical experience for the performer. There is Leonard Bernstein, whose players find themselves caught up in his inspiration and able to let go to his direction. These are some of the different ways in which conductors can produce magical performances. I think the key message out of my work was that different tasks require different talents; and that different teams need different kinds of leaders.

BL

What were you actually researching?

JW

We were exploring three issues. First: what are the skills and talents of successful leaders of creative groups? Second: how do they differ on different kinds of projects? Third, how do they learn to be successful leaders? We aimed to explore the parallels between more explicitly creative worlds and the worlds of industry and commerce. Essentially I was responsible for a project called "Managing Creative Groups", a piece of research I carried out as a Visiting Research Fellow at Roffey Park Management Institute. It was a collaborative project with a dozen major organizations, sponsored and partly funded by The Department of Trade and Industry's Innovation Unit. Managing creativity and innovation is a field of immense current interest in the UK - because we are considered inventive but not innovative. If creativity is the ability to come up with something distinctively new and potentially valuable, innovation implies a much greater emphasis on bringing something into use. Interestingly, I found in Brussels that they considered that the EU as a whole was also poor at innovation and that the UK was not alone in these problems.

BL

How did you come to be interested in these problems?

JW

I had been interested in this topic for many years, since being the chief executive of an engineering business, as well as the chairman of a group of Venture Capital companies. The focus of my interest then was in the context of new product development with cycle times becoming ever shorter. The pressure on industry everywhere, if they want to survive over the long term, is successfully to come up with new products. What I was asking myself was: are there any lessons to be found in the people who managed all kinds of excellent creativity? In particular, I was interested in the development process where a high concentration of creative people is involved. The questions we asked were: What makes one person in a particular leadership role more effective than another?

Leadership or management

BL

Do you consider that there is a different between leadership and management in this context?

JW

I believe there are distinctions between management and leadership. What we found in drug research, particularly in our experience at the Wellcome Foundation (now part of Glaxo-Wellcome) was that people talked about "leadership", not about "management". Why was that so? Management consists of managing something that already exists, while leadership is about creating something new, which is much more like a journey of discovery.

Another question we were asking was: how do projects differ from one another in such a way that they call for different skills in the effective manager? Are the skills transferable? There are other questions that are critically important for industry and society as a whole. These include - how do people become effective leaders of creative groups? What are the patterns of personal development of people who are good at it that distinguishes them from those who are not? What are their learning styles? These questions are vital for both British industry as a whole, as well as for training in particular. Also how do you develop people with these skills? Currently I believe the process to be very hit or miss. And that should not be the case. Those are the key questions we were asking and we felt that our findings might have important implications for all organizations that were going through any form of development and change.

BL

How did you undertake the research?

JW

We did not attempt to start with a precise definition of creativity, rather we aimed to work in those areas which people would generally consider to be creative, and then we worked backwards towards a definition. In the end everyone has an element of creativity in them and every task has an element of creativity in it but some more so than others. But there are industries where this is more critical than others - drug research and advertising for example.

BL

But there is some argument over the distinction between management and leadership. In really good organizations are not both integrated at all levels? It is not this sort of divisiveness that ultimately results in a restricted ability to innovate effectively?

JW

Well, new products require "champions", while existing businesses require managers; and perhaps it is constructive tension between the two that generates continuously creative organizations.

BL

Perhaps you could tell us more about the group you used as the sample in your research?

JW

We worked with the marketing division of IDV, the R&D division of Zeneca. We also worked in the research division of the Wellcome Foundation, in KPMG as well as a Medical School and an NHS Trust. (As an aside, one interesting point we found in the Trust was that some of the psychiatrists were excellent managers, while others were not. No one appeared to be average!). We worked with the British Olympic Association. We worked with two independent film producers. We worked with the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and we worked with BBC Radio. In all, we worked with 38 people.

Research methodology

BL

Could you say something about your methodology?

JW

The methodology was itself part of our creative task. The first clear point was we were dealing with people who were managing a wide variety of creative activities; and the second point was that neither I, nor any of my fellow researchers, knew much about the content of the businesses of the various organizations and certainly none of us were experts in any of their business areas. So there was little point in us directly observing individuals as managers. Instead we needed to adopt a methodology that used their perceptions about what they were doing. We focused on what was actually happening in organizations and groups that were explicitly creative and where managers were considered successful and we asked colleagues to identify the individuals concerned. We then asked them to identify a recent task where they considered that the project had been successful and by using Personal Construct Psychology (a form of behavioural psychology) they identified the strengths of the leader and the critical success factors of that project compared with four others that they had worked on recently. Participants were asked a number of questions (using a six point scale to avoid the tendency to opt for neutral answers) to compare the projects in terms of the task, the leaders' strengths, success and creativity. We wanted to know how successful the project was and in what way? How creative it was? And in what way? We were then able to build up a picture of the leader: what were the similarities and differences between the various groups.

BL

But what makes creative groups and their management different?

JW

The traditional view is that creative people work away by themselves in the backroom - in advertising agencies or research institutes. In practice, creative people (dancers, singers or artists) are often more concerned with the development of their own talents than they are with the organization they are working for. They are often sensitive, sometimes even temperamental. They are experimental and intuitive; they are willing to "play around" and see what happens until it seems to work. I have experienced this process recently myself when I have taken up painting. The criterion of success for creative people is often summed up by the phrase "does it work?"

Managing prima donnas

BL

Are not the prima donnas one finds in creative worlds very difficult to manage?

JW

Creative people are, of course, more prone to being arrogant - particularly in the advertising industry, where you find this arrogance packaged as "big egos". The fascinating thing about big egos is that they do contribute a lot to the team - because they dare to be different. They are willing to accept challenges and do things that others would not do, and their arrogance often enables them to succeed. But the other side of this process was mentioned to me by a film director who said "these arrogant people are also often very vulnerable; they put themselves at risk and they need a great deal of support. I'm happy to accept big egos as part of my team up to a point - and no further; they require, even demand, so much of my time and energy to support them that I cannot give sufficient thought and time to the rest of the team and the project as a whole". Creative people are also often undisciplined and unpresentable.

BL

My experience of big egos is that often they have very strong personal agendas and they are often happy to hi-jack the organization in the pursuit of their agendas.

JW

Yes. So when it works with a prima donna is when the success of the project matters as much to the prima donna as it does to the impresario.

BL

Why did you do the study?

JW

Basically because as far as I know, very little work has been done on how creative people are best managed. In addition, because the transition from being a part of the team to leading it has been found to be a difficult process, particularly in science where the failure rate of new managers has been found to be quite high. Third, because experience quickly showed us that very little systematic, and effective, training was available in this area for people who moved to head creative groups. On a wider front, what we are finding is partly a reflection of the competitive world around us that demands continually higher quality and shorter product cycle times. It is perhaps a paradox that while there is a perception that in the creative world you need "time" and "space", organizations are increasingly demanding the creativity be delivered to schedule and to budget. Industry demand nowadays that creative people be very disciplined. We found that the management of creativity is relevant to all organizations where issues of innovation and change are vital for their survival. The study itself focused on trying to help organizations select the right people who might more effectively manage creative groups and creative activities. How would you choose them? And what help should be given to them to develop their talents most effectively in the long-term interests of their organizations.

Beyond Belbin

BL

How does your work relate to that of Belbin? How far do you feel that Belbin's roles can be learned, or are they essentially inherited? It is said humility is good for learning but is it good for creativity?

JW

Our work suggests that creative projects have a number of different kinds of team-role needs. We identified perhaps twice as many team roles as does Belbin, including Visionary, Ideas generator and Shielder. Roles which Belbin would not recognize, as well as many that he would. Creative teams need to select the team-role types they need for their particular kind of project; but also creative projects need different role skills, as different stages; and creative people are much more flexible in the team-role skills they play than are others. Creative people are good learners, and that probably means that they can learn to play different team roles better than others can. Creativity is very much about using each other's minds, and that requires being open to new and different experiences.

Creativity and learning (or personal development) are very closely associated. The process involved developing team-role skills, as well as openness, trust and collaboration and helping people see things from another point of view. Every group we worked with found that it was essential that the leader fostered learning. Effective management of the process involved a hands-off management style while, at the same time, the leadership role was required to protect people and provide some security; effective leaders shielded the group from the culture of the rest of the organization.

BL

Creative groups need to do things differently but organizations only work if policies and plans are consistent, if not uniform?

JW

Perhaps it is useful to go through a specific example (for example, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and KPMG) and identify some of the key issues. The methodology focused on the strengths of people, it did not consider weaknesses; it attempted to identify common characteristics through its use of Personal Construct theory. Leaders are usually experts in their own field, who either have a vision about the future, or have identified a key question and are good at generating or prompting ideas. In addition, they pay a great deal of attention to how they choose the team; they use the constraints positively - as a challenge; they have an ability to give people freedom but not complete freedom; they use tension to inspire thought; and they provide support - both affective and cognitive. Creative people and creative groups have to learn to live with experimentation and failure. The supportive role needs to recognize that people do give and need different kinds of support; there is a need for emotional support when criticising people's work, for providing information and physical support, and for helping someone with a specific project. There is a whole range of supportive activity that leaders need to use to help the work of creative groups. One characteristic that needs to be recognized and acknowledged is that creative groups are usually very self-motivated. Overall, creative projects need a light touch; effective leaders give messages very indirectly through the atmosphere they create, to which creative people are sensitive - and responsive.

BL

Do different kinds of creative/ideas people need to be creative about different things?

JW

Yes, I think very much so. I think perhaps each different stage of a creative project requires different kinds of visionary skills: identifying a good research question requires different skills compared with devising crucial experiments to validate a hypothesis.

Organizational implications

BL

What are the organizational implications of the apparent paradox that while the long-term success of an organization is critically dependent on its ability to develop and exploit new ideas/products, often creative people are best not employed as full time organizational people?

JW

Successful creative organizations recognize this, I believe, in the extent to which they work with other organizations - organizations with different skills, perspectives and cultures. New products are often best developed by external specialists.

BL

Perhaps you could end by summarizing the key points of your research?

JW

In essence, we found that successful leaders of creative groups:

* come of their own fields and were very often experts in the field;

* were often visionaries in their own fields;

* spent considerable time choosing and developing their teams;

* were skilful at providing freedom and skilful at using the constraints of the situation as incentives for people who worked in their groups;

* recognize that creative people are very self-motivated - they are interested in developing their own talents;

* set up and used creative tensions;

* provide support;

* shield the groups; and

* recognized that learning and creativity go hand in hand.

BL

Thank you for sharing these stimulating ideas.
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Title Annotation:discussion with 'Managing Creative Groups' author and The Centre for Leadership in Creativity Director John Whatmore
Author:Lloyd, Bruce
Publication:Leadership & Organization Development Journal
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jan 1, 1998
Words:2715
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