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Creative teams thrive on flexibility, turning out some of their best work when given the freedom to explore, experiment, and push boundaries.

But are there times when too much of a good thing can be, well, too much?

In many circumstances, a laissez-faire, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach can actually become an obstacle to creativity, and certainly to productivity.

Disorganization and lack of structure can be paralyzing, causing even the best teams to become overtaken by chaos. A lack of clear direction, continual rework, too many meetings, and not enough uninterrupted creative time to get work done all curtail creativity, prohibit productivity, and sap team members' enthusiasm and energy.

More than one-third of workers cite lack of "standard" processes for workflow and poor prioritization as two primary obstacles that get in the way of work. Worse yet, most employees spend less than half of their workday actually doing work. The rest is wasted on email, busywork, and meetings.

On the other hand, teams that are well-organized, with a clear focus, and which eliminate clutter and distractions, are much more creative, effective, and productive, and they even have time for those urgent, fire-drill projects that inevitably pop up.

Although some creatives balk at the notion of structure and organization, the reality is that every team needs some amount of structure to maintain sanity and to be truly effective.

The secret to maintaining a healthy balance is to add the ideal amount of process and systems to keep everyone organized, without allowing the structure itself to get in the way. You can have the best of both worlds. Here's how.

1. Enforce the use of creative briefs

You've no doubt heard the phrase "measure twice, cut once." Creative briefs enable a mistake-free environment by setting the strategy, tone, and key messages for any project up front. Briefs can eliminate confusion, rework, and conflicts over expectations and goals that often erupt mid-stream.

You probably already know that you should be using creative briefs; surprisingly, though, only 16% of in-house teams do, and of those teams that do use them, 60% do so only for highly creative, high-concept tier 1 projects.

Using creative briefs forces stakeholders to identify their project's strategic objectives to help guide prioritization; and when multiple stakeholders are involved, creative briefs force them to agree on what they want to see before the review and approval process. The result is that projects move more quickly and smoothly from start to finish, and avoid delays in the proofing process.

With the cost of rework averaging 40-60% of total project spending, it's easy to see how eliminating this hassle could have a huge impact on productivity and profitability.

2. Implement a formal, digital proofing and approval system

Proofing and approval can be a nightmare, especially when multiple stakeholders are involved. Each wants to weigh in, provide input, and have his or her feedback heard. Moreover, if people don't respond quickly, the entire project is held up until they kick it forward—unless there's conflicting feedback, in which case the project can quickly take a giant leap backwards.

The creative team is left in the awkward position of not knowing which input to implement, which to ignore, or how to achieve a compromise all the while feeling tremendous pressure to meet impending deadlines.

Digital proofing and approval systems can resolve the problem, bring order to the chaos, and help the entire team stay organized and on track.

By uploading proofs to a single, shared location that everyone can access, stakeholders can view and discuss suggested edits before the creative team starts making the changes. The usual back-and-forth and conflicting feedback are eliminated. The entire organization can see where projects lie in the queue. And the creative team can avoid proceeding without proper authorization; it can achieve accountability and stay on track to meet deadlines and expectations.

3. Use a streamlined, transparent work management software

When requests come flying in from all directions, it can be nearly impossible to keep track of it all. As a result, instead of prioritizing based on strategic impact as they should be, creative teams still say deadline remains the number-one criterion for prioritizing assignments.

Lack of visibility into the project queue means that no one knows who's working on what, and high-value projects often suffer with missed deadlines and rushed work. These "unstructured" work requests also lead to unstructured status updates—those drive-by check-ins, emails, and phone calls that interrupt the flow of more important work and paralyze creativity.

Establishing a structured process for submitting work requests can eliminate such chaos and provide visibility into the work queue to prevent overloading the team with low-priority projects. That increased visibility allows any organization to "align business strategies with execution, so managers can continuously plan and monitor strategic, operational, and tactical goals."

4. Allow for flexible work hours and environments

Most everyone can relate to the "light bulb" experience—that moment when the solution to a problem suddenly comes to you in a flash of brilliance. For creatives (and others, for that matter), that moment can happen at any time: in the gym, at the park, on the train. Maybe you're a morning person, who does your best work from 4 AM to noon, or perhaps the frenetic energy of a local coffee shop fuels your inspiration.

Companies must recognize that creativity doesn't always follow a set schedule. Ideas, designs, and concepts can emerge anywhere, at any time, and some people naturally work better "after hours" or in unstructured environments.

Overall, creatives work best when assigned "the work that needs to get done," not "the hours that need to be worked."

Part of the challenge for employers in allowing flexibility is trust: They think employees won't get their work done without constant oversight. Yet, studies show that employees have a far higher level of engagement and are more productive when they have more freedom in when and where they work. And it's important to note that already roughly one-quarter of creatives say they spend less than two hours a day actually doing creative work at the office, with meetings, status updates, email, and other interruptions hampering their creativity and productivity.

Laptops, tablets, and smartphones make it easy to enable work flexibility while also maintaining accountability. Nearly half of creatives already use mobile devices on their own to capture inspiration and record ideas on the go, and 30% say they would like to create more using tablets.

By providing the right tools, including access to Cloud-based services for work request management, tracking project status, proofing, approvals, etc., a company can empower its creatives to work wherever and whenever is best for them, providing the perfect blend of structure and freedom that fuels outstanding work.

You can structure without smothering

Without a doubt, smothering your team with red tape, excessive protocol, and processes that add to their already overwhelming burden can kill every last shred of creativity.

But adding just the right amount of structure can actually unleash even more creativity by relieving your team of the burden of busywork, rework, and wasted time. By eliminating those obstacles, creatives will have far more time to do what they do best: create.

Uncovering more creative time translates directly to better employee engagement, improved morale and enthusiasm, more "in-the-zone" performance, and better project outcomes.

Rather than "good enough" compromising just to get the work out the door, this level of organization ensures better individual, team, and company performance by helping your organization put its absolute best work in front of customers every time.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
image of Joe Staples

Joe Staples is chief marketing officer of Workfront, a Cloud-based enterprise work automation solution that helps marketing, IT, and other teams avoid excessive email, redundant status meetings, and disconnected tools.

LinkedIn: Joe Staples

Twitter: @jstaples21