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The East African : Nov 7th 2015
The EastAfrican 38 BUSINESS NOVEMBER 7-13,2015 MANAG E R A≥tists want to cont≥ol thei≥ ideas f≥om gene≥ation to execution COMMENTARY KIMBERLEY D. ELSBACH, BROOKE BROWNSARACINO, FRANCIS J. FLYNN “It’s best not to expect artists to react right away to an idea; instead, give them time to evaluate it on its merits.” N ot long ago, in the course of studying new product development, we were witnesses to a breakdown in the creative collaboration process. A toy company needed a hit offering for the next holiday shopping season. Early on, a marketer we’ll call Kyle came to a meeting where one of the company’s most talented game developers was previewing a car-and-racetrack game concept. During the discussion, Kyle piped up with his advice: “It needs some kind of creature.” The developer paid little attention. If anything, he resented the feedback from someone who had no expertise in creative design. But the marketer’s intuition was sound. Several weeks later, the design team concluded that a villain (or “creature”) would indeed make the game more engaging. Incorporating the new element would push the game’s ship date beyond the holidays. So the whole project was shelved. Our research into the dynamics of collaboration suggests that this scenario is fairly common. It can be difficult for experts with valuable input to influence the work of creative colleagues. Small but significant numbers of these co-workers are generally much better at giving ideas than taking them. In a recent set of studies, we de- cided to investigate why this phenomenon exists. We discovered that the problem centres not on ego but on identity. A healthy percentage of people in creative roles self-identify as “artists” and react in unproductive ways when they feel that identity is being threatened. To be clear, we’re not talking about artistes in the design department or accusing anyone of being thin-skinned; those are stereotypes that we’d actually like to erase. The people who think of themselves as artists work in a range of functions, and their passion for their work is often critical to the innovation and long-term success of their firms. But these artists differ from other creative people in an organisation in that they feel a very personal stake in their endeavours. Their strength of feeling can energise them tremendously and sometimes drive them to achieve nothing short of genius. It may also make them resist useful feedback and great ideas if that input seems to put their core identity at risk. So how can you work with these colleagues more effectively? The first step is to learn a little more about what makes your artistic peers tick. The second is to master four tactics that increase the odds of getting them to listen to — and incorporate — your ideas. According to our studies, 15 to 20 per cent of professionals in jobs that require creative work see themselves as “creators of unique outputs that embody personal, artistic visions.” They prefer working independently on projects that they can “own.” This separates them from the majority of their creative peers, who typically self-identify as “problem solvers” and who readily embrace others’ ideas, put their expertise into action in collaborative groups and help channel projects toward commercial viability. Problem solvers are a known breed in most business contexts, but what does it mean to identify as an artist at work? In our interviews with many such professionals and their colleagues, three elements consistently surfaced: A creative signature style. Artists feel pride in producing work that bears their unique stamp. As a result, some resist incorporating others’ ideas into their projects, even when those suggestions address problems they’d like to solve. The artistic experts we inter- viewed weren’t satisfied with simply launching a project; they wanted to see it through. Artists want to control how their ideas are generated, shaped and executed, not just contribute an initial design or vision. Artists often see a fundamen- tal antagonism between their own goals and those of their employers, causing them to resist influence from colleagues they perceive to be more profit-minded. Nonartists may misperceive these behaviours as arrogance rather than manifestations of creative identity. If they instead recognise why an artist colleague sometimes resists their ideas — and learn to offer input that doesn’t feel like a violation of the person’s signature expression, holistic control and non-commercial ethos — productive collaboration becomes more likely. Tactics for advancing your ideas Managers who want more give- and-take with their creative peers can use four proven tactics, identified by our research, that reduce threats to the artistic identity. Offer broad suggestions. The researchers Susan Dan- iels-McGhee and Gary Davis have shown that specificity helps people visualise and build on proposed concepts, thereby facilitating collaboration. That makes sense in many settings. But when people are collaborating with artists, we find they are more likely to have influence when they avoid presenting specific ideas and, instead, offer broad suggestions or general inspiration. Temper your enthusiasm. Although artists believe pas- sionately in their own ideas, they are more receptive to input from others when it is presented without emotion. Enthusiastic idea-givers can come off as keen on taking over the process, whereas people who are dispassionate seem less threatening. Delay the decision-making. It’s best not to expect artists to react right away to an idea; instead, give them time to evaluate it on its merits. The delay gives artists not only more say over when and how to respond but also a chance to consider how they might incorporate your suggestion without detracting from their signature style. Show respect and like-mindedness. Our first three idea-giving tac- Artists often see a fundamental antagonism between their own goals and those of their employers.” tics let artists retain some control so that, as one would-be collaborator put it, they “get their EQ (emotional quotient) out of the way and get their IQ (intelligence quotient) thinking.” The fourth tactic works from a different angle: It reassures creative colleagues that your ideas and theirs are likely to be congruent. Artists have told us that when someone shows interest in their existing ideas and previous work, the collaboration is more likely to be productive. You want to prove that you understand the artist’s perspective and are on the same wavelength. We all know that creative collab- orations typically yield better solutions than lone-genius efforts. Our research reveals insights and practical strategies to increase your influence with your artist colleagues. By taking the time to understand how your colleagues’ identities affect their perceptions and actions — and then behaving in ways that respect them — you reveal your own gifts as a collaborator and a professional. Kimberly D. Elsbach is an associate dean and a professor of organisational behavior at the Graduate School of Management, University of California, Davis. Brooke Brown-Saracino received an MBA from the University of California, Davis. Francis J. Flynn is the Paul E. Holden professor of organisational behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. Tactical feedback gains favourable response. Picture: File Challenge o≥ flaw? A sto≥y of packaging A MARKETING manager we’ll call Rhonda and a designer, Jim, worked at a food company that wanted to relaunch a popular product with new packaging. Jim presented a design concept involving an innovative material. Rhonda immediately noticed that it was unlikely to work in some environments — for example, in vending machines at gas stations, where fumes could penetrate the packaging and contaminate the product. Her first impulse was to ask for a complete redesign, but recognising that Jim was proud of his work, she held back. “If you think of it from his point of view, this is his baby,” she explained. “He came up with the idea, and he designed the packaging from scratch. If you criticise it, he feels you’re stopping his idea from going to market and reframing it into something else.” Instead, Rhonda used the tac- tics we describe in this article. She raised her concerns about the permeability of Jim’s proposed material as an additional, interesting design challenge, not a flaw. “Look, we all want to see this happen,” she was quick to say. “But we don’t want to have a product that gets recalled.” In a neutral, dispassionate tone of voice, she then pointed to some new trends in packaging that could provide general inspiration for getting around the problem. And she showed appreciation for Jim’s expertise: “I said, ‘I understand the merits of your idea because of A, B and C. However, have you thought about D and E?’ That showed him that I really did get what he was trying to do.” She also made sure to ask questions and refer to the strengths of Jim’s previous work. Jim ultimately agreed to change the packaging, and the relaunch was successful — all thanks to a thoughtful approach of valuing Jim as an artist.
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