Imagine you are halfway through the most important project of the year. Timelines are tight, stakes are high, and you are suddenly faced with a fervent disagreement between your team members first thing on a Monday, just five days before your project’s deadline. Your team members are arguing over creative execution and direction, openly calling each other out on their respective perceived shortcomings. They then go on to ask themselves – and each other – why this project matters at all in the first place. Oh boy! Looks like you are dealing with a classic case of the conflicts in group projects!

More often than not, there are as many arguments breaking out in a team of creatives as there are fantastic ideas being generated by them. You would even be right in assuming that creative conflict is an essential part of the creative process, especially when that involves multiple visionaries working together. If you are leading such a team, then, it only stands to reason that you bring a strong awareness of cultural sensitivities to your team. Impeccable creative conflict resolution skills have to be your bread and butter.

Recommended reading: 2022 Q2 Creative Management Report

There is extensive literature on the causes of creative conflicts out there. Guaranteed solutions are promised, except… Most of the literature focuses too heavily on setting aside differences and finding common business ground, and too lightly on addressing the cultural and creative side of said tensions. For this reason, we decided to conduct extensive research on creative conflicts and how to resolve them. We hope our findings, presented below, will help address the creative side of your daily people-concerns.

1. Create Projects Together With Your Creatives, Not on Their Behalf

One of the most frequent obstacles to creative outcomes is making assumptions about what your creative team’s vision looks like. With 64% of teams finding their stakeholders do not entirely understand their value proposition, assumptions are rampant and one of the main sources of heartache in business.

A great strategy here is to speak to your creatives individually, gather their thoughts, feedback, and visions, and create a project matrix board that will reveal all converging points to you – making the project at hand an open book for you to examine, edit, and coordinate. You can now use this information to create your project roadmap and define points of collaboration and set individual contribution timelines.

The key to success at this stage is that of keen awareness. Learn all you can about the communication norms and cultural sensitivities that permeate the minds of the creative individuals you manage. Also called cross-cultural awareness, it’s hard to overstate the positive impact that knowing the following things about your team members will have on your talks:

1.1 Be Aware of Their Cultural Norms and Communication Styles

There is tremendous value in knowing the above if you’re looking to start a casual conversation, a tricky negotiation, or a tough discussion on the right foot. Knowing where your creatives come will prove immensely advantageous for both parties. Listen for the emotions being conveyed underneath the often-misleading layer of words. Think of this as a game of colorful differences waiting to be discovered. Once you’ve found them all, you will get exclusive access to the secrets that governs people’s communication across countries and continents.

1.2 Keep Your Conversations Short and to the Point

Creative minds are always coming up with new ideas. One thought leads to another, and imagination is the only limit. While it would be lovely to sit around and chat idly all day, you have a project to run. Refrain from asking too many open-ended questions, and speak in short, coherent sentences.

1.3 Know and Respect Your Creatives

Lead with your heart here – that’s how you get your team members to feel comfortable and safe with you. Once they do, they will be more receptive to your suggestions and feedback. A leader who is considerate and respectful like that helps foster a culture of acceptance that makes team members feel welcome, valued, and heard.

2. Be Clear and Specific

Start by defining all project parameters so each participant knows where their responsibilities end and another one’s begin. By defining all parameters of a project ahead of time, you allow for clarity and objections. It is much better to address such concerns before the start of the project, than to suddenly find yourself amidst internal turmoil, he-said-she-saids, and to have creatives stepping on each other’s toes.

The creative process, as well as its predicted outcomes, often involve deeply personal investments from creatives. A sudden and unforeseen change in them can throw even seasoned creatives off balance. These changes may leave your team members feeling disturbed, and even hurt. This, in turn, can lead to an increased incidence in creative conflicts. Use the SMART model to set up and manage your creative projects effectively:

2.1 Specific

Are your tasks clearly defined? Which creative team member is in charge of each task? Are there any tasks that merit collaboration and, if so, between which team members are you expecting this to take place? And how do you define success? Mapping out the specifics can be tough and time-consuming, but it’ll pay dividends in the long run.

2.2 Measurable

What metrics will you be using to measure success? Have you defined benchmarks for things like individual minimum workload completed per week? You may want to allow your team members to complete tasks at their own convenience, agreed, and you may want to set a maximum amount of time you want them to dedicate to each task.

2.3 Achievable

Has your team adhered to past project timelines? What have those timelines looked like? Are you allowing for sufficient wiggle room? Is every individual’s workload manageable for them? With that in mind, are the deadlines you’ve set realistic or over-ambitious? Ideally, you want your team to have a nice mixture of deliverables that challenge them just enough to keep them engaged.

2.4 Relevant

Are your creatives playing by their strengths? Are the tasks assigned to them of interest and challenging enough for them? How does this project and its outcomes contribute to their professional development and their business goals? Make sure you connect all the dots before you move on to the final step.

2.5 Time-Bound

Consider how each task depends on the rest and set up blockers, dependencies and fair deadlines to ensure timely completion. Consult your team members in setting up soft and hard deadlines, and communicate urgencies and priorities in advance.

3. Remember that Creatives Are Visionary Individuals First, and Team Members After

As alluded to earlier, highly creative people have the advantage of a clear, laser-sharp creative vision – meaning that a creative leader is effectively dealing with as many creative visions as the number of creative people they manage. The key here? Humility, we think. It is all too easy for creative individuals to lose themselves in their own strong vision, firm opinions, and cultural influences that make them feel like their ideas and self-expression are more valuable and should be considered above the rest’s.

This is where you, the leader, come into play. Approach your creatives from a place of respect and fairness for the collective, not just the individual. When you communicate in such a way, you remind your team members of the bigger picture and provide them with a new, fresh perspective. This will hopefully lead to better mutual understanding of and respect for their fellow creatives. Try the following:

  • Communicate your appreciation for their skills
  • Convey that you trust them
  • Ask them to lend their expertise to the project
  • Define the project’s main direction and let them fill in the gaps for you
  • Provide constructive feedback where necessary

4. Keep a Cool Head Even When Tensions Run High

Another key characteristic of a successful creative team leader is composure. You are the voice of reason in a room full of strong ideas and intense personalities. You have to manage your emotions and those of your team members. In a creative environment especially, these tend to run quite high. Your role here is that of a coordinator, and you need to ensure harmony, fairness, progress, and that there is:

  • An overarching vision of the desired outcome based on shared values
  • A clear set of ground truths to establish an accepted group understanding of the reality of any given (conflict) situation
  • A set of resource-based plans aimed at transforming your resourceful creatives’ output into desired outcomes

5. Revisit and Reevaluate Wherever and Whenever Needed

No project survives its engagement with people fully intact. Even when you tick all the boxes outlined above, deadlines change, creative direction may be redirected, additional help and collaboration may be needed, or everything can go swell, and you may still end up with a result that looks very different to your initial vision. And that’s okay. Be open to such changes, embrace them, and help your team see what you see and understand that the creative outcome, even when altered, is still theirs. They are the owners of that, and nothing will change that.

At the same time, it’s crucial to acknowledge to yourself and to them, that since they are the owners of their creative outcomes, they have every right to disagree with you. Be ready to enter such discussions with as much understanding for the creative person as possible. Draw a firm line to prevent such creative conflicts from giving rise to the types of divergent thinking that could potentially threaten the business goals and outcomes at hand.

Some Final Thoughts

It is such a wonderful thing, managing a creative team. You get the chance to be in the same room where some of the world’s most forward-thinking ideas are born, and you get to help in shaping them. Take pride in that, and lead with your head and your heart, together. And remember – the guidance you provide is what will help resolve creative conflicts and elevate your team’s efforts from abstract concepts and floating ideas to well-executed plans.

The Creative Management Series

Explore our extensive series on creative leadership and creative management to prepare yourself for every challenge ahead:

Lytho would like to thank the Rijksmuseum Research Library for its generous access to archived material (i.e. Delivering Impact with Digital Resources: Planning Your Strategy in the Attention Economy) that aided in part in the creation of this article.

Do you want to increase project management and execution clarity and reduce your team’s creative conflicts and misunderstandings? Lytho helps you streamline your entire workflow and harmonize all brand collateral under a single, uniform platform. Feel free to reach out to us by scheduling a demo and learning how our creative solutions can boost the effectiveness of your creative projects. We look forward to speaking with you!

Do you want to give yourself and your creative team more room for creative stimulation by automating the boring stuff? Lytho helps you streamline your entire workflow and harmonize all brand collateral under a single, uniform platform. Feel free to reach out to us by scheduling a demo and learning how our creative solutions can boost the effectiveness of your creative projects. We look forward to speaking with you!

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