Working with solo creatives

Alastair Pearce discusses how to get the best out of solo creatives.

There are many types of creative. Let’s look at one that we’re going to call ‘Solo’. Does Solo work in your company? He’s very creative but hopeless in teams.

If your company’s success depends on the creativity of its employees it’s obviously sensible to develop working practices that get the highest levels of creativity from those colleagues. And this can be tricky, for creative people are not famous for getting up in the morning to contemplate how their personal creativity can be yet more closely aligned to the company strategic plan.

How do you get Solo doing his best creative work for you? Solo’s great when left alone but most of your company’s projects require a team of co-operating colleagues and Solo just clams up when he’s forced to attend.

The key thing is to recognise, then accept, that Solo is a soloist and to stop urging him to morph into an ace collaborator. He isn’t going to manage it, and his creativity in fact requires him to be Solo, so any managerial attempt to get him to change will undermine his ability to be creative – and that’s why you hired him in the first place.

If asked about his problem with teams he might say, ‘My really good ideas, the ones that are really new and exciting, just don’t emerge when I’m in a team. No, teamwork seems to hold them back, sort of stifles them even before they’re born.’


He’s echoing Bonnie Siegler who asserts in her book ‘Dear Client’ that ’ Vision is not a group activity’. And this observation probably has some truth in it for, when working alone, Solo’s able to see an argument through from beginning to end, to develop its narrative, let its story unfold. Alone, he has the freedom to express himself as himself rather than as a semi-anonymous part of the corporate blob.

But the key point about Solo’s preferred way of working is the quality of what he produces. When permitted to gestate his own creativity at its own pace, he produces his best work: innovative, disruptive, original, authentic.

Do these words characterise the outputs of many of your teams? Solo’s process (if you can use that word to describe his apparently chaotic creativity) is based on Saturation, Incubation, Illumination.

He dives into his task and randomly saturates himself in it, then he just lets it do what it needs to do in his brain  – incubation, before illumination occurs and a brilliant bit of creativity sometimes pops up unpredictably and unreliably.

This Saturation, Incubation, Illumination sequence may take minutes, may take weeks, and may never be successfully completed, but when it does, Solo’s creative results can be spectacular.

How does this compare with an established model of team-working in which Saturation, Incubation, Illumination, is replaced by Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing. Here, doable outputs are the goal ushered in by timescales, budgets, consensus, agendas and sandwich lunches.

If your company has a problem that needs solving put a team onto it. Perhaps you’re a manufacturer of cranes and your new ‘Big Beast’ keeps tipping over. Get a team to sort it out: stabilisers, suitable ground conditions, weight / reach calculations. A perfect problem for a team to solve. Don’t let Solo near it for you might get. ‘I wonder how we might build cranes for use in space – zero gravity – that’s interesting.’

So the conventional team can be good at solving defined problems, but less successful at more creative thinking, and one reason for this is that teams tend to seek consensus after the ‘Storming’ phase has been fought through, and consensus is usually achieved by rooting decisions in existing ideas or practices – the comfortable status quo invigorated with a bit of inching evolution.

Solo’s Saturation, Incubation, Illumination process avoids the quicksand of consensus. So if your company’s upcoming project is to ensure next month’s audit goes well, put a team on it. If, on the other hand, it’s to be an entirely new product idea, then Solo is a better bet.

So teams are useful in their way, and even valuable to Solo, for if you let him come up with the creative, zany idea for the new product, you’ll then need a good old team to work out how it can be manufactured and how much it can cost.

And it’s this sequence of competence that starts to solve the managerial problem of how best to exploit Solo’s creative talent: accept his way of working that will often defy conventional business practice with its deadlines, budgets, rewards systems and line management protocols, but recognise he has huge creative value as long as you don’t try to make him ‘one of us’.

That’s Solo, but what about Artiste? Also very creative but hates anybody criticising her work. And there are others: Molotov, Playful, Monk, Fibber, Facilitator, Picky and even You.


About the author

Alastair Pearce is director of Working With Creatives


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