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Can a ‘No Rules’ workplace assist creativity?

One of my pet subjects is process that aids creativity. Funnily enough it does often cause alarm for some creatives at first when they haven’t experienced a high functioning creative business before, where creativity and accountability are finely balanced.

Let’s face it – we’re not here to make fine art or to create folio pieces every day. We certainly need to have a good balance of those types of projects to expand on our knowledge and skills, to make it a fulfilling place to be and to have an environment for people to aspire to work in or work with. We’re operating businesses that make a living out of being the best possible creative we can provide within the constraints and conditions of the project – whether that’s the brief, the budget, the timeframe, the logistics… or whatever conditions we have to work within. Yes, I realise many creative people think that sounds like I’m all business, but actually that’s their own limitation. They think they need certain conditions to be creative and I can say with confidence that they do not. Some of the most creative executions in our business have come from very strict conditions and even surpassed meeting them. There is a solution for every budget, for every condition. Most of all having sound client relationships is going to give you the best possible opportunity of developing great creative and that comes from process at first, not a free-for-all chaotic experience.

Essentially if your client relationships and process is sound then all the time in the chain can be spent on the right places – on what goes on the final piece. Unsound process simply means people are spending time on work that is wasted and redone rather than making it better.

There are certain rules that add to the creative process and taking those out affects the client relationships too much that it hinders the best work getting out. It is ignorant thinking that you can continually miss deadlines, run over budget, have a chaotic experience for your clients and expect them to come back to you or to trust you when there is a real opportunity. Additionally a no rules process around getting tasks done can lead to the business being unprofitable and therefore unsustainable – at the end of the day there’s no point having a great showreel if the doors are shut.

At the same time I realise some creatives fight to have endless numbers of hours on projects and free thinking around deadlines. Sometimes the work benefits from these conditions, but we are in a commercial environment and there are some business practicalities that have to be considered to be able to keep having the opportunity to work and get paid for it. It is a very naive creative or producer that is stuck in this mindset (and boy…some can really be stuck!) I think a balance can be achieved by having certain projects where there is a creative investment and others where they are simply making the best of the circumstances. At times we can make considered decisions if it is worth investing that little bit more on a project to make it better or to meet client’s expectations. My experience is that often this is not within relativity of the overall job or business profitability though, so I mean within reason.

I think it is a very important decision as to what we give freedom and what we don’t. ‘No rules’ can work well in regard to the execution however, and experimentation and development of techniques is a healthy way to express this thinking. Those things that can have a ‘no rules’ policy I feel include:

  • Executions, techniques, styles, tools etc
  • Where good ideas come from (include producers and even admin and tech people in brainstorms)
  • Allocation of tasks – who does what
  • Where people sit
  • The environment and culture
  • Idea generating techniques
  • Experimentation (provide opportunity to do so with ‘20% time’ or capture this in overheads)

It is vital in my experience that the basic processes and business functioning is in order first so the focus can then be spent on excellence. The process stuff becomes like laundry and is quietly sorted in the background much like a ‘default’ of sorts. Where I think having a ‘free for all’ actually hinders getting the creative done, getting the best possible work out or having an unsustainable business (which therefore limits the opportunity to continue doing what you love for a living) are these:

  • Being on time and doing what you say you will (within reason)
  • Treating people as equals and fairly (so that does mean that keeping track of certain things like leave, salaries, titles, benefits, team opportunities, social activities, even access to the bar!)
  • Having a clear process for clients (they have a massive chain of command and you need to make it work for you proactively or they will affect the creativity and also profitability of your projects)
  • Knowing who does what in the business and also separately on projects (without a clear idea of who is responsible for what then mistakes happen, people are unsettled and lose focus on the work. Flexibility can be implemented so long as it is with respect to people’s expectations. In a small team people can jump in and out more easily but in a big team this can be dysfunctional as much as it is idealistic creatively)
  • Having empowered people (lots to say on this another time – what this actually is and how to get it)
  • Being profitable (sorry – that means doing jobs within budget and only investing in creative opportunities when it is good business to do so)

I also think there are people that work comfortably in certain ways and they’ll fight to the death to maintain that status quo. This is an obvious limitation of theirs but at the same time if that’s all they’ve got then you have to respect where they sit and make the best of that. So, letting go of expecting them to fit in a wider/better/bigger business model or expecting them to lift up to a certain creative expectation may be self-defeating. Having no boundaries or expecting them to step into a wider role will just make them spin out of control and bog down in their old habits. This happens particularly with people that have come from a smaller business group. The thinking that works in a small business doesn’t work in a larger one and therefore limits the creative growth of the business as well as the financial growth. This is a number one problem I’ve seen out there in the industry and breaking those old habits is a massive challenge particularly if there are stubborn and stuck individuals with control.

We may think that fighting for a ‘no rules’ environment is best for the creative process but I pose the idea that really what it is that you’re fighting for is just your own set of rules, or a new set of rules, perhaps unspoken rules even. Whatever is the new way of working together (regardless if it works or doesn’t work) is actually just a new set of rules whether you like it or not. Much like people who are anti-religion, ironically. The fanatical rallying against religion is a religion in itself and they even have a name for it. So, what I think we need to get the best creative out there in a commercial environment is a balance of the right rules in the right place whether they are spoken or not. This can only happen under certain leadership conditions however, as I’ve learned first hand. Even the best creative people and the best leaders are only ever going to flourish as good as their management allows (knowingly or unknowingly).