Why are ‘creative’ people so unproductive?

Why are creative people so difficult to manage? I think it’s because we manage others the way we’d want to be managed. And as most of us are not that creative, we don’t have much insight into how their methods. So, how do we get around this?

manage creative typeDrummy

The Problem With Managing Creative People

Zoran Oxalic recommends: ‘Extract ideas, don’t dictate them.’

You probably know Sting, the former lead singer with The Police. The drummer once said that Sting would spend time just staring out the window (while the rest were song-writing) and then come over with a great song.

Looking at him, it seemed like he was doing nothing.

And that’s the dilemma for project managers. How do you know your creative types are doing something or simply staring into space?

Joseph Michael Essex reminds is that ‘contrary to yet unchallenged assumptions, most truly creative people are highly disciplined, just not necessarily in conventional ways. Dates, times and schedules are important but not more important than producing ideas and images that meet, even exceed individual standards of excellence.’

Tactics for Managing Creative People

Most project managers control projects by allocating tasks with fixed due dates. This works fine if you’re developing code or have a process-driven environment where you can calculate deliverables and product releases.

But what happens when you have a more complex project to deliver?

For example, you’ve won a contract to provide a solution that hasn’t been developed before, or use new technologies, or create a game on a new operating system?

Because you have no frame of reference, it’s more difficult to estimate the due dates.

Giving Creative Types Direction

In Drive, his wonderful book on motivation, Daniel Pink tells the story of William McKnight, 3M’s president during the 1930s and 1940s. McKnight believed in a simple credo: ‘Hire good people, and leave them alone.'”

One mistake it seems you can make with creative types is to tell them HOW TO do something.


Creative types work best when given a challenge. The pleasure is in solving the riddle. That’s what makes it so compelling.

If you tell them HOW TO do it, you’ll be dismissed, ignored, or resented.


  • Provide the specifications
  • Agree on the due date
  • Provide the necessary tools and environment
  • Monitor their progress
  • Communicate without interfering too much
  • Don’t panic if they’re late.

This means that you’ve set the ground rules; now they must deliver.

Unlike other scenarios where you can – to a degree – recommend the tools, methods, and techniques, with creative types you need to step back and let them discover this for themselves.

What You Assume to be True

Another issue is that creative types, for example, designers, writers, thinkers, will challenge your assumptions. This means that meetings can get a little heated as they don’t agree with the status quo or what passes as conventional wisdom.

Dean Rieck reminds us on CopyBlogger that creative types will ‘challenge assumptions and ask hard questions to discover what is real. Writing, blogging, or business rules aren’t really rules, only rules of thumb. If you want to wield true creative power, you will always take what others advise with a grain of salt.’


One of the myths about creative types is that they don’t want direction. Research seems to suggest the opposite. But it’s how you frame the direction that’s important. Stress to the creatives that they are responsible for the HOW TO part of the project; you’re responsible for getting it delivered on schedule.

What else would you add? Why is it so hard to manage creative types?