Creative Ops:
Finding Creativity in Operations for Creatives

Creative agencies are notorious for late nights, long weekends and reworks. In fact, amongst bar carts, open kitchens and casual dress, it’s core to agency culture. But to break that status quo, creative teams require the space, methods and tools to thrive. Frankly put, it takes getting creative about creative operations.

There seems to be a stereotype that all creative people are quirky free-spirited individuals who float through their days (and moods). And when considered in a professional setting, they are sometimes typecast as procrastinators with a lack of time management and communication skills. Even amongst creative people themselves, there are memes describing the ‘typical workflow’ of a creative. They go something like this — gets brief, procrastinates, lots of self-doubt, stress, has a eureka moment, and spends all night (the last one) to craft. Now, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that happens, because it does, to everyone, but it doesn’t have to be the norm.

Being creative myself, I can empathize with this idea and how incomplete a picture it paints. Having grown up drawing and painting, later becoming a photographer, and graphic designer, I’ve been through every part of the creative process. However, I’m also analytical and systematic. Which is why, unexpectedly, I transitioned from a purely creative career to one of operations building the tools and systems that help creatives be creative.

As the Creative Services Manager at Mint, I help our creatives get to deep work by creating the space to do the audacious thinking required of them. Having experienced the ins-and-outs that create problematic workflows resulting in things like all-nighters, I can attest that there are not many creative professionals that actually find great and sustained success with this. In fact, in our always-on world, this can take a great toll on the creative mind. We believe by setting up a system designed to challenge the typical ways of working for creatives produces an environment more conducive for creative work. And this may not look like how one might expect.

We have discovered that there is a growing number of studies on procrastination and creativity. One study found that for those that take longer to start working on the task (or as they were described in the study, ‘the procrastinators’) were 28% more creative. Participants were asked to generate new business ideas. One group was asked to start working right away. The other group was asked to delay the task by playing solitaire or minesweeper for five minutes. The results were judged for how original the ideas were by independent evaluators.

“When people played games before being told about the task, there was no increase in creativity,” Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School wrote in his New York Times op-ed column. “It was only when they first learned about the task and then put it off that they considered more novel ideas. It turned out that procrastination encouraged divergent thinking.”

With this insight, we thought that providing more distance between brief and deadline would allow for novel concepts to emerge —opening up nonlinear thinking. This is also important to consider for precrastinators, the group that begins immediately on a task, that allows a little time to ‘let things percolate’ can amount to more novel ideas.

In our world and industry, the luxury of time is notoriously not on the side of creatives. So, how can you approach the balancing act of finding more time for ideas to generate and meet the demands of our culture? Enter design thinking.

Design thinking is a process for design and for innovation. It was made popular in the 1990s by the design consultancy, IDEO. The challenges we’re being asked to solve are getting trickier and more complex — from progressive thinking for our clients, to effectively supporting our teams while changing systems. Design thinking is the planned steps in which creatives take to solve problems.

At the core of design thinking is empathy. To truly understand the needs of who you’re solving for is to put yourself in their shoes. The best way to do that is to ask them and listen. We’ve conducted several listening tours to understand the many factors that impact our creative team’s time. We asked questions from our creatives, but also our colleagues and those in the industry or adjacent industries. We conducted surveys to hone in on the qualitative and quantitative metrics impacting the work. This left us with more questions, but it pointed us in the right direction and how to solve for the needs of a system.

Leveraging an integrated approach, we worked cross-functionally to find the best methods to define and redefine our processes. We discovered that when we took this approach we found better ways of working. When thinking in systems and trying to optimize for a few outcomes, we found that paying particular attention to the ways in which processes work together is the best way to design an intuitive and easy to adopt practice.
In any design thinking system, the need to test your hypothesis is important. Especially in a way that can affect how people work (and live), you’ll want to test your ideas to see if it is effective. This also provides good insight and feedback for iterative improvements. We had teams pilot our new process to try it on for size. Taking that step gave us good insights into what was naturally being adopted, what was showing signs of success, and elements that were more challenging to adopt. We found ways to evolve the process and identified the tools and resources our teams need to excel in this new way of working.

Like anything, the work is never complete. As we add more complexity to our worlds, as new things in culture arise we must adapt. Our systems are no different. Going into any operational process design with this mindset is part of design thinking as well. Knowing that to learn from previous experience creates growth and opportunities. Through attention to ways of working and the steps needed to foster a creative environment, you can turn the tables from the status quo to a place where you can gain just enough distance to arrive at a unique thought.

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design thinking