Fighting Fires and Lighting Fires: Balancing Productivity and Creativity

It’s easy to get excited about creative and innovative ideas, but it’s not so easy to balance that creative fire with the day-to-day demands of keeping the ship afloat. There are a million little tasks to do, a million problems to address and all those deadlines to meet. The next thing you know, your organization has become static.

This is something everyone struggles with! So we brought in some experts for a panel event to share how they’ve managed to find a balance between lighting the creative fires and fighting the operational fires.

The evening’s panel included:

  • Dan Casey, Project Manager for the City of New York in the Office of the Deputy Mayor
  • Felicia Stingone, Chief Marketing Officer at Grind
  • Laura Willing, People Business Partner at Harry’s

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In startups, scaling companies, and government agencies, these guys know all about lighting fires to get their teams excited and putting out the fires that threaten their organizations. They deal with excited entrepreneur types, change-resistant team members, bureaucrats, and all sorts of other personalities to balance the operating needs of their organizations with the need to innovate and move forward.

We learned a ton at this event and we’re stoked to share some of the key takeaways of the evening.

Good Managers Put Their Teams First

Whether lighting or fighting fires, it all starts with your team. That’s where the big ideas come from and those are the people on the front lines, dealing with problems and keeping the whole show running. When you come in as an excited new hire determined to change the world, it’s easy to focus on just that. But as a manager, your priorities have to change—you have to focus on your team.

Felicia talked about the difference between coming in as a fresh hire with big ideas and then trying to transition over to management of a team—she had a huge wakeup call when she learned that people didn’t actually like working for her. No manager deliberately brings their team down, but it’s all too easy to get so focused on achieving the goal that we lose sight of our team. As a manager, your job is about nurturing your team, and not about getting things done at the expense of the people below you. As Felicia puts it, “We’re trying to light fires without burning down the house.” Make sure your team feels safe, secure, acknowledged and appreciated. Get to know them. Learn their strengths and weaknesses and work with them—not despite them—to reach the goals you’ve set.

That isn’t always intuitive, so Laura recommends offering lots of training and coaching for new hires in management positions. She also notes that it’s all about practice—reading books and blogs about management is great, but it’s not enough. You can read all the books you want about hockey, but you’re not automatically going to be an NHL star when you step onto the ice!

Teamwork Takes Transparency

It’s not easy to keep an organization running, and it’s even harder to do it while innovating at the same time. In order to keep your team on track, on mission and effective, you need transparency. Your team needs to know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. And in order to be effective, your whole team needs to be honest with each other about ideas and critiques.

That kind of transparency takes vulnerability—we have to be open to people telling us they disagree with our ideas and we have to be honest when we don’t have the answers. Laura talked about how the founders of Harry’s are “really good at continuously expressing what they don’t know” and what they’re not good at. They focus on building the vision for the organization, empowering their staff to own and tackle those tasks that are better left out of the founders’ hands. They’re also genuinely curious about how other people think—not only do they actively solicit ideas from their team, but they also really engage with those ideas and work hard to understand them. That’s terrific for the team on several levels—it lets people know their ideas are truly valued and honestly considered, it encourages people to share their ideas so that the organization gets the benefit of that awesome thinking, and it creates coaching moments where everyone can learn from the idea. As Laura says, “It’s just something great leaders do.”

Of course, it’s easy to share your great ideas with your best friend, but it can be a lot harder to share them with a group of people you work with. As the leader of a team, you can make it easier by setting up expectations that make people feel safe expressing themselves. Dan recommends setting a clear vision and making the constraints, boundaries and roles of the project clear and explicit up front. Make sure everyone understands that they’ll be heard and they know who ultimately is responsible for making the final decision. That way everyone knows they’ll have their time to speak but will be able to move on to the next step once a decision is made. As Felicia says, the key is creating a clear separation between personal and project-related issues. Make sure the focus is on the project and keep things really objective while you’re in that space.

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Communication Is Key

To achieve the transparency you need for a high-powered, fire-lighting, and fire-fighting team, effective communication is essential. In a world where we have instant access to text, email, and every other kind of communication, you’d think that would be a no-brainer. But Felicia mentioned nowadays a company will leverage multiple communication modes and softwares simultaneously—Trello, Slack, Google Messenger, iMessenger, Basecamp, text, email, and on and on (you get the idea). And more often than not, that creates silos and breakdowns in communication. She notes that we’re still in that transitional phase between the old-school corporate secrecy and millennial transparency, but we have to set up communications the right way to make them effective.

That may mean standardizing your intra-organizational messaging systems or it may involve bringing everyone together regularly for some facetime to make sure you’re all on the same page. The right formula will be different for every organization—you just have to experiment and find what works for you.

And communication isn’t just for your team—it’s also an issue of communicating from your organization to the public. It may come up when your organization has done something really awesome that you want to share and can also come up when you have a fire to put out. When Dan’s team had to address the spread of Legionnaire’s disease, for example, or when Felicia’s team had to deal with bad press surrounding the ingredients in some of their products, those organizations had to take control of the narrative and openly address the issues with the public. In the age of social media, it’s increasingly difficult to just brush something under the rug and hope it goes away—people can catch on to any snippet of information and spread it like wildfire. So, you have to find the right channels and the right message to share your story with your customers and the public. As Felicia reminds us, “If you don’t tell the story, someone else will tell it for you.”

Empower Your Team To Fail

Here’s the other thing about transparency—it makes it really hard to hide failure. However, studying early failures is a great way to learn meaningful lessons and move forward—avoiding some serious fires later on.

Felicia mentioned that her favorite kind of people are entrepreneurs who recognize their own failures—maybe they’re brilliant at creating a vision but have struggled to create the operations to sustain it. The trick is being self-aware about your own failures and open enough to share that with your team.

Laura remembered a rough patch at Harry’s a few years ago where progress was slow and people were frustrated—so the founders pulled everyone together for lunch and explained what decisions were made (and why) and opened up the floor to talk about how to get things back on track. They recognized that something had gone wrong and candidly acknowledged it to their team—and that opened the door for the team to share ways to move forward.

Being open about weaknesses and failures makes your team stronger. That candid environment gives your team permission to try new things. They know that experimentation is encouraged, even if there’s a risk of failure—and that’s how we get innovation. Plus, as Dan mentioned, telling war stories about our challenges, mistakes, and failures can help bring us together as a team—we can all relate to the experience of failure and we can all learn from each other on that front.

Give Yourself Space To See The Big Picture

Putting your team first, creating a transparent environment, and empowering your team to fail all take a lot of energy—it’s all too easy to let yourself get totally sucked into your job. The people who love innovation tend to love that feeling of pressure and excitement and working themselves to the bone—until they hit a wall. You’re dealing with emergency after emergency until you lose sight of why you started in the first place

Being an effective manager means taking time away from that craziness, giving your brain a rest from the million little things running through it, and reminding yourself of the vision you and your org’s leaders set. Some of us, Felicia noted, are lucky enough to work for organizations that constantly remind us of the bigger picture and give us the space to step back, evaluate, and make sure our team and our work is in line with that mission. Her organization, Grind is actually looking at creating a “Whole Wellness Program” to provide spaces to meditate, cry, fight, or just have a quiet moment. It’s the idea of “engaging to disengage—pulling back out of the day-to-day mayhem to remind yourself of the bigger picture.” It gives you and your team room to ask, “Is it really a fire or are we making it a fire?”

And taking some personal time isn’t just about refocusing on the big picture. It’s also about making sure you’re ok as a person—remember that to keep everything running and be there for your team, you need to be at your best! Dan pointed out, “If you have to both fight and light fires, it can really drain you!” Working all the time and never sleeping is going to leave you too worn out to be an effective leader.

Laura recommended making time to do the things you love—exercising, doing creative activities, reading books, listening to music and spending time with people outside of work, for example. If you don’t take that space for yourself, you run the risk of losing your outside identity and getting totally subsumed by the identity of the organization. But your identity is what makes you valuable to the organization in the first place. If you lose it, you can’t be effective. As Laura says, “We have to work to figure out how not to work.”

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Build Systems To Make It All Easier

So all of this seems like a lot to deal with—taking care of your team, encouraging, transparency, giving people room and permission to fail, and keeping some personal space. How do we do all that and still keep the lights on? #Systems. They’re not super exciting, but they are super important.

Once you go through a project or process, take the time to reflect on it. Dan points out that it’s really easy to get caught up in the fervor of solving a problem, but we have to remember to step back afterward and ask ourselves how we could handle things better the next time or what steps we could put in place to avoid the problem altogether in the future.

You’ll have that opportunity to build up the systems that keep your organization on track as it scales. As Laura mentioned, it may simply take debriefing after every project to figure out what went right, what went wrong, and how to make the process better. That feedback is the seed for your systems. You may face some naysayers—folks who might argue that systems and rules will inhibit them. But Felicia pointed out that you just can’t scale that way—at some point, you need clear systems to deal with some of the organization’s day-to-day functions.

Systems aren’t as exciting as the down-and-dirty work of problem-solving, but automating some of your processes gives your organization the room to really focus on that thrilling problem-solving work. It also helps you encode what you’ve learned from past mistakes—helping stop troublesome fires from breaking out in the first place!

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Light And Fight Right

Organizations are tough beasts to wrangle—finding the right balance between creativity and tactical execution is not easy. But your team can handle it with the right tools. That means putting the needs of your team first, creating a culture of transparency so everyone has the information they need, empowering your team to experiment and to fail, and keeping the big picture in mind. It also means learning from your successes and mistakes and building in smart systems to make the whole process easier.

Still haven’t come out to one of our panel events? Come on out on June 23rd and join us for the last panel in this series—The Future of Work: How to optimize your org structure for innovation. Oh, and did we mention dinner and drinks are included (as if the promise of sweet, sweet knowledge isn’t enticing enough!).

The Design Gym
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