Management Challenge #12: Measuring the Performance of “Creative’ Work”

Excerpt from “The 27 Challenges Managers Face: Step-by-Step Solutions to (Nearly) All of Your Management Problems” (Jossey-Bass, the Wiley imprint in San Francisco, September 2014).

We know that “creative” work is extremely valuable. But how can you possibly performance-manage “creativity”? How long should it take to come up with an idea? How do you measure whether or not the idea is good, very good, or excellent?

We typically think of artists, entertainers, writers, inventors, and designers as creative. The truth is that there is always the potential to inject creativity into almost any task, responsibility, or project—into any action. In my view, one could get creative about digging a ditch, if the ditch digger had the right circumstances, inspiration, and support. Of course, the ditch still has to be dug. And that’s always the rub.

There are always parameters. A longtime television industry veteran (I’ll call him Tele) once told me, “Take the writers on a situation comedy. They are engaged in a highly creative process. But they have to keep each teleplay inside the 24 minutes. They have to work within the characters and backstory of the show. At the end of the day, they need to get a show written, and then write another one, and then another.”

Yes, some jobs are more “creative” than others. But even the most creative jobs have three elements in common with other work:

  1. A goal (purpose, required outcome, or at least a desired result)
  2. A timeframe (or an intended structure)
  3. Parameters

These three elements are your management tool kit.

The biggest favor you can do for employees doing “creative” work is keep reminding them of all the stuff that is not within their creative discretion. Tele told me: “You can’t sit on the writer’s shoulder and nag: Write, write, write. Create, create, create. That doesn’t inspire. But it helps them a lot when you remind them we need a story with a beginning, middle, and end. We need a main character to want something and then be denied it, and then try even harder to get it and nearly miss, and then finally get it or not. We need other characters to get in the way or help, on purpose or inadvertently.” That’s the desired outcome.

“It helps them a lot when you remind them it’s four six-minute acts: Act I, Act II, Act II, Act IV. It’s Act I, scene 1, two minutes.” That’s the structure and timeframes.

“It also helps them a lot when you have established characters: There are four main characters you are writing for and they are established characters.” Tele joked that on the old show, My Favorite Martian, a popular refrain among the writers was, “A Martian would never say that!” There are the parameters.

Sometimes you as the manager may not have a clear goal. Yet. So you are sending this employee on a creative goose-chase of sorts, an exploration . You are asking the employee to “take a crack at it” through wild improvisation to just “see what happens.” Maybe this is part of your own creative process: You want something to look at, something that might help you imagine what the goal really should be. If that is what you are doing, then you need to be very clear about that with yourself and with the employee from the outset. Explain exactly what you have in mind, include the employee in your creative process, and explain exactly what role you have in mind for the employee in the process. That’s how you avoid having the employee misunderstand, think of the process as his own creative process, and then feel like you, the manager, are failing his creative effort or else hijacking it for yourself. This can leave the employee feeling like his work and efforts have been for nothing.

Make it vividly clear to the employee what you do know about the assignment and what role you want her to play in it. Tell her, “I don’t know what I’m looking for yet. I’m asking you to help jump-start my creative process. I am asking you to come up with a rough draft, which I probably will send back to the drawing board several times. It is likely that at some point I’ll take over the project and rework it myself. Why don’t you take two days and see what you come up with?” Now you have a goal a timeframe and parameters.

In regular ongoing one-on-one dialogue with your “creative” employees, or when discussing the “creative” aspects of an employee’s work:

  • Remember that parameters, timeframes, structure, and a clear desired outcome are gifts to anybody doing creative work. At the outset of a creative project, it can seem like anything is possible and everything is on the table. That’s daunting because it makes the creative process into one agonizing choice after another. Always make it clear what is not within the “creative” employee’s “creative” discretion.
  • Don’t let the creative employee mistake “reinventing the wheel” for real innovation. Make sure that the creative employee is well-versed in all the current best information and best practices on the matter in question before ever trying to invent something new. Real innovation builds on, rather than ignores existing knowledge and skill and wisdom.
  • Whenever the “creative” employee is stuck or needing guidance, go back to the parameters, timeframes, structure, and desired outcome. Take them one by one. Desired outcome: Start with the purpose and then describe as much of the desired outcome as you possibly can—all the details the “creative” employee does not have to create. Parameters: Spell them out. Timeframe/structure: Break it down, so employees understand exactly what is expected of them
  • Remember rough drafts are sometimes a good jump-start for the creative process. Encourage your “creative” employees to do rough drafts, first drafts, second drafts. Rough drafts take the pressure off at the outset and then give the employee and you something to work from and talk about, if not exactly “measure.”

Excerpt from “The 27 Challenges Managers Face: Step-by-Step Solutions to (Nearly) All of Your Management Problems” released by Jossey-Bass, the Wiley imprint in San Francisco (September 2014; $23.95). For more information, visit

Based in New Haven, CT, Bruce Tulgan is a leading expert on young people in the workplace. He is an advisor to business leaders all over the world, the author or coauthor of numerous books, including the classic, “Managing Generation X” (1995); best-seller “It’s Okay to Be the Boss” (2007); “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy’ (2009); and “The 27 Challenges Managers Face” (2014). Since founding management training firm RainmakerThinking, Inc., in 1993, he has been a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. Follow him on twitter @brucetulgan. He can be reached at

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