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Four Ways to Make Sure Structure Unleashes Your Creativity

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Myth: "Creativity needs room to blossom."

Marketers, and especially designers, are creative by nature. So there is a tendency to want to remove the restraints of structure or "process" because "creativity needs freedom." Creatives worry that organization and process are constraining and take away from time that could be spent creating.

But without work processes in place, you lose more time than you gain.

Up-front planning, with clear objectives to achieve a strategic goal, doesn't just add "one more thing to do and update." Rather, it helps streamline work and avoid potential errors.

And errors are the true culprit that eats up time that could be better spent on creative endeavors.


Jed Simms, founder and co-creator of TOP (Totally Optimized Projects), notes that on average 30-35% of project time is spent on rework, including revising reports, revisiting decisions, redoing work, correcting errors, checking again, and repeating steps. Simms also points out that reducing the need for rework releases 15-20% of project time and effort for more productive work.

With the right structures in place—for example, standardized work requests, templates for repetitive work, complete campaign plans, and a clear approval process—you can save time various ways. You get the feedback you need at the right time and from the right people, reducing the amount of time you spend waiting on approvals, doing repetitive tasks, and reworking projects, thus giving you more time to spend in the right side of your brain.

In short, structure creates time for creativity.

"Checkpoints slow you down, in a good way," says Todd Henry, CEO of Accidental Creative. By planning ahead and checking on progress as you go, you'll end up with more time and fewer "uh-ohs."

Seize the opportunity to add some beneficial structure to your process and discover how you have freed your creativity. Here are four tips on how to put structures in place before starting your creative work.

1. Develop a complete creative brief

A complete creative brief is square one. It should be used as the basis for communications with clients, employees, shareholders, the media, or any other target group involved in a project; it serves as the agreed-upon focus and expectations for all stakeholders.

A complete creative brief will include strategic items such as the objective of the project, the primary audience and their beliefs, the tone, the key message, and the call to action. It should be used for all creative projects, not just the "big" or "important" ones.

A brief frees up the creative team by providing vision and clarity. That way, there is no wasted energy developing something for the wrong target, for example.

When all key players cooperate, and they are in agreement with the brief (and, remember, briefs should be "brief"), that consensus serves to direct ideas and analysis... and helps the best creative method for approaching a project to emerge.

2. Create and implement a campaign execution plan

One of the biggest challenges for marketing managers is the envisioning and development of the right plan for execution of their project or campaign. The execution plan is the vehicle that delivers the correct and necessary information about the deliverable.

Accordingly, you and your team must create a plan that contains specific themes and goals. It should detail the activities regarding when, where, and how a specific marketing message is delivered.

The creative team benefits from such details; the more information, the more colors on the creative canvas. The whens, wheres, and hows, as an integral part of the marketing message, can be woven into the creative work when they are present from the beginning and when they are understood as being part of the plan.

3. Map out your work to meet deadlines

Whatever your personal belief about deadlines—whether they kill creativity or they motivate it—you will find research supporting your theory. My recommendation here is to identify the intermediate level of time pressure that is the sweet spot for unleashing creativity.

That sweet spot going to be most easily identifiable when you set your own, internal deadlines and map out the details of your project to align with those personal deadlines.

4. Follow a standardized approval policy

When all plans, briefs, and execution are subject to a standardized approval process, a creative team can move forward with confidence and commitment, knowing that their efforts are correctly targeted and that they meet with the strategic goals of the business.

That kind of "peace of mind" fuels freedom for a creative team, because they are not constantly second-guessing the mindset of the stakeholders and their vision.

* * *

Creativity is a critical element of every project, and every effort should be made to feed it and sustain it. Having structure and processes in place is important for that very reason. Because it's only then that creativity will flow—and flow down the right path.


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Bryan Nielson is the CMO and work management evangelist at AtTask, maker of cloud-based enterprise work management solutions. He is the author of the e-book The Five Most Dangerous Marketing Productivity Myths: BUSTED!

LinkedIn: Bryan Nielson

Twitter: @AtTask

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  • by Gord Collins Thu May 15, 2014 via web

    Great article Brian! I would add that structure should be weighted more to helping workers focus on the essential and to free up their potential creativity. That might be a better way to avoid rework. Rework suggests the vision isn’t clear right from the get go. The creative brief is very important to getting people on the same page regarding strategy and what we’re doing for the client.

    Creative people don’t like structure because all too often, it’s the wrong structure (old school) and deflates their inspiration and retards the quality of their work. And I think right and left hemisphere don’t have to be separate, if our guiding concepts are correct. The two will get along like good buddies, as long as the creative brief is done well.

  • by Ford Kanzler Thu May 15, 2014 via web

    Article certainly offers wise advice. Where I've seen things occasionally go south is when a higher-up (CEO, VP, etc.) inserts themselves into the approval process and begins messing with the production details...exerting THEIR creativity, often without any involvement in developing or reference to the creative brief. It always amazes me when senior management has the time for changing tactical execution and throwing the project off schedule, after having ignored strategic planning.

  • by Mark Limbach Thu May 15, 2014 via web

    Reminds me of Ernie Schenck's "The Houdini Solution"
    Put innovation and creativity to work by thinking inside the box.
    A great read for creatives.

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Houdini-Solution-Creativity-Innovation/dp/007146204X

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