Think like an engineer, dream like an artist

By Jada Balster

Invite engineers to streamline a studio or creative operation and they will find four ways to make more time for creativity.

They will strip out redundant processes, define new workflows, and attempt to rebalance the working day to give more time to tasks that add the most value.The truth is that the most effective creative leaders are already starting to think like engineers. Creativity is becoming part inspiration, part organisation. Why?

Last year almost half (47%) of creative marketers saw an overall decline in performance due to shortcomings in content creation, according to research by the Content Marketing Institute.

For about one in five (22%), those shortcomings amounted to having no work management processes at all. They were completely reactive to briefs as they came in. Yet seven out of 10 creatives expect to produce more content this year than last.

So, against this backdrop of growing demand for content, creative leaders are paying a high price for inefficiency: inconsistent quality, poor results, uncertain costs and margins, and a never-ending reinvention of workflows to try to get a job out of the door on time.

Thinking like an engineer looking at this chaotic set-up – or lack of set-up – would help to identify four problems:

1. Managing versus imagining

Creativity is a factor of time. More – and better – ideas flower when there is sufficient time to research, collaborate with colleagues, reflect, and develop concepts. Inefficient workflows squeeze out time for thought and collaboration. We end up spending more time managing than imagining. We need workflows that respect time for creativity – we need to plan for it.

2. Ad hoc requests versus scoped-out plans

“Can you just …” is a toxic phrase to anyone trying to stick to a plan and workflow. Ad hoc requests – particularly those that arrive with little notice of an imminent deadline – can divert attention and resources from the primary task at hand. What’s the antidote? Saying no can be hard. No-one wants to let colleagues down or appear to be less than helpful. Sometimes a plain no is the best route. Otherwise, start the conversation with “Yes, but …” and spell out the project, deadline, resource, and cost implications of accepting an ad hoc request. To do that – and successfully deflect ad hoc requests – you need clear visibility of how core projects are progressing.

3. Chaotic sign-off versus clear accountability

Agencies and in-house teams operate within a web of multiple stakeholders: creative, managerial, legal, and clients. One common characteristic of an inefficient workflow is lack of clarity of who needs to sign-off what and when … and what happens if that sign-off doesn’t happen? Step one towards a more efficient workflow: nail down from the outset who will be involved in sign-off and on what timescale. Then communicate that out.

4. Distractions versus focus

How does a team communicate? By email, messenger apps, face-to-face meetings, or conference calls, or all the above? In other words, how many channels do you have to monitor – and how many other messages about other issues, projects, or plain distractions will you find there? Communication needs to be streamlined to dedicated channels to minimise the risk of distraction.

The engineer’s solution is to move away from what’s been described as ‘waterfall’ management – a cascade of tasks from the top – to a more Agile workflow. The Agile methodology allows creatives to improve the speed, productivity, adaptability, and responsiveness of creative work – precisely what’s needed to keep pace with the demands of the digital world. There are four key steps towards adopting a more Agile approach:

A: Get your backlog in order

Prioritise the tasks on your to-do list. In Agile terminology, tasks are ‘stories’ – you need to prioritise what will be done first based on urgency, where the request has originated, and importance to project, campaign or organisational goals.

B: Plan sprints

Agile activity is organised around one- or two-week-focused ‘sprints’ of work. Sprints allows teams to adapt to incoming feedback. This approach also allows managers and colleagues to think of your work in rapid iterations as opposed to lengthy milestones and timelines.

C: Stand-up meetings

Agile teams hold daily 10-minute standing meetings to address issues, bottlenecks, and progress quickly. These regular sessions replace longer progress meetings and reports.

D: Standardise process

The Agile approach is a standard workflow that’s designed to flex to whatever content is required. The content will be original in style and substance, but the way of building it follows a common process that’s well understood by the team. Templates can outline each step in the process to ensure consistent, high-quality work and reduce the time typically wasted on trying to figure out what needs to happen next.

To keep pace with demand, teams need to be more than creative: they need to be organised. The main benefit of adopting a more Agile approach will be more time for what really matters: creativity and quality. So, if you want to be a better creative, think like an engineer.

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