Orchestrating Creative Teams

“Come up with something new! And make it good.” Have you ever said that? More and more leaders nowadays make this demand. They need something new and creative, and they need it to be good. Mostly because their circumstances are changing radically and their organization hasn’t. Or maybe simply because that is the kind of market they are in. Come up with something and make it good!


At THNK, we work with and learn from the best in the world. We develop a cadre of leaders in coming up with innovative solutions to large societal challenges. So what have we learned about creative leadership in this process?  And, in particular, what have we learned about orchestrating creative teams?  How does this differ from the orchestration of more traditional operational teams?

We have learned that:

  • a strong creative team typically outperforms the gifted creative individual;
  • a creative team consists ideally of three carefully selected individuals, not two or four, or more;
  • the team needs to feel on a privileged mission, and the team’s home can reflect that;
  • creative leadership means leading the team concurrently from the front and from the back;
  • managing the energy of the team means pushing the teams up to, but not over, the edge.

Better a creative team than a creative individual

Creativity is fundamentally about making a novel connection between previously related or unrelated thoughts. This is much easier done when individuals within a team listen carefully to each other’s widely differing views, exchange personal experiences and share powerful analogies – in essence, collectively aim for these novel connections to happen. These can both be orchestrated or occur serendipitously. The alternative is the creative individual hoping for the “Eureka!” moment in his or her own mind while mulling over the same problem again and again. Scientific research on this is scarce, and books often use anecdotal evidence. So far at THNK, we have worked with about 50 creative teams who have invariably outperformed the individual master practitioners working on the same creative challenges because they harness the aggregate creative power of the team, rather than just of the individual.

The optimal size of a creative team is 3

We need to be clear here: we are speaking about a creative team, not an operational team. An operational team looks to solve defined problems with known solutions; a creative team works on understanding and re-articulating the problem itself first and then searching for solutions that are unknown or unconventional. When a creative team has come up with a solution and has fully developed a concept, it can hand over the solution to an operational team for execution, or the creative team itself can become the operational team. Operational teams can be of substantial size, sometimes amounting to ten or even more than a hundred people on a large effort.

At THNK we have discovered that the optimal size for a creative team is 3. Teams smaller than 3 lack the diversity to generate creative perspectives, and will seem under-resourced. Larger teams suffer from complexity of coordination. Our experience teaches us that when a 4-5 person team struggles to make progress and complains about the workload, it works best to reduce its size, not reduce the scope or postpone the deadline, and certainly not to add even more team members.

This is not to say a creative team of 3 will have all required skills, literacies, perspectives or stakeholders included. Creative leadership should not aim to make the team a group of representatives. Nor should the team work in isolation – it needs full access to draw from a network of resources when needed.

Going for smart, fast, and fun

Selecting the mix of individuals that have the highest chance of finding an innovative solution is an overlooked skill. Successful creative leadership means spending more time and attention on casting and adjusting teams than normally expected.

Who will you consider as members of the creative team? At THNK the potential team members have already been carefully selected at the door. We look for certain qualities: candidates should have an explorative mindset and passion and purpose in their working lives. Both are important when pushing beyond the initial obvious. When possible, we select people whose experience is both deep and broad, something we refer to as a T-shaped individual.  Knowing one field well gives opportunity to bring in deeper insights from this area for the team to build on. Also, the knowledge of what it takes to really make a difference in a field helps to go beyond the easy and superficial solutions that may first arise. At the same time, having worked in more than one discipline makes it easier to let go of one way of thinking and make the connections we are seeking. You want an individual to have a certain mental agility, in essence, you want them to be smart, fast, and fun. You want individuals who have quicksilver minds, who produce quickly, and who are great fun to work with. You should already get a real kick out of the idea of possibly having them on your team!

Looking who to mix with who is both an art and a science because knowing which individuals will make creative sparks fly together often comes from a gut-feel instinct. Three key elements to consider are:

  • Similar caliber. For the team to challenge each other, the team members need to be well-matched or of equal caliber, of more or less equally strong qualities and personalities. They need to be able to look each other in the eye, disagree where they see fit and challenge one another on the issues rather than the emotions or personalities. Otherwise the effort becomes one man’s burden. The creative leader can be a team member of the team he or she casts. In this case, it is even more critical to be surrounded by equally strong-willed team members in order to avoid the de facto creation of an operational team to implement the creative leaders ideas, instead of a true creative team.
  • Co-creation ability. The team members need to have a sufficiently compatible approach to the creative process, including the ability to listen to and build on each other’s ideas, to embrace mistakes as opportunities, to let go of what is not working and to not be ‘married’ to ideas or take criticism personally. Also known as being ‘good in the room.’ This includes a sufficient level of commonality in culture and work ethic to quickly establish trust and one working language.
  • Diversity in ways of thinking. At the heart of the creative team process is combining hitherto unrelated ideas. Therefore it becomes vital to bring together differences in background, expertise and ways of thinking. When possible we would look to combine divergent thinkers with convergent thinkers, young people with old, people who understand technology with people who understand people. In essence the team members need to be able to surprise each other.

Once you’ve got your team, how does creative leadership ensure that the team performs well?  The short answer is that the leader needs to provide a solid start, a mission, and a home.

First of all, creative leadership aims to give team members a sense of privilege. It must be clear to them that they are on an important mission and that they have been selected carefully. Aim for them to feel like a sports team playing the world cup final; an elite team that now has the unique chance to write history. There is no internal competition; each team member realizes the team is dangerously small and can only win when everyone fully supports each other. To foster the sense of privilege, one can organize a public celebratory kick-off or announcement.

A solid start would include a period in which the team members get to know each other.  Creative leadership should encourage them to spend time on sharing background, strengths and weaknesses (both task expertise and personality traits) and their passion around the topic. By getting the team to create clear expectations around their availability, response times and what they can and cannot ask from each other a foundation is laid for respecting and understanding each other even when it gets tough.

Each of the team members should be able to independently articulate the team’s mission and have a personal buy-in to its importance and urgency. Creative leadership means providing this narrative and checking if the team members are able and willing to tell this same story themselves. It is an illuminating (or potentially sobering) experience to ask the team, after having worked together a few weeks on the project, to describe (each in turn) the team’s objectives in his or her own words.

The team needs a home. The creative team draws strength and inspiration from its location. Examples of this include the start-up garage and the high-security research bunker. The location has a temporary feel to reflect that the team is conducting a project with an end. The location is unique and in sync with the uniqueness of the endeavor. Creative leadership means understanding the importance of the context the team will operate in. The location will be used literally as a home, e.g., the place where the team eats, and when necessary even sleeps. It increases the sense of identity if the team has a name as well.

An example is the story of a colleague that was asked to lead a team with a mission to transform an entire industry: to change the rules of competition and come up with a complete new business model for the industry. What was formed was a team of three hailing from different countries, and with very different backgrounds and areas of expertise. Hidden in the basement deep down below in the headquarters of the industry association, the work was carried out in a small room that also served as their paper archive. There were no windows, only one tiny frame near the ceiling. One of the three regularly stood on a chair, with his head as close as possible to the small window, to enjoy a smoke without disturbing the others too much. In this tiny room, the ideas came to fruition after two months of work from early morning to late each night. This is where the team carried out analyses, modeling, brainstorming, strategizing, and planning. This is also where lunches and dinners were shared.  Once ready, the team walked up to the big presentation room upstairs and announced their findings and conclusions to the government, industry council, and press.

Leading the team from the back and the front

When the team is up and running, creative leadership is essentially a balancing act between leading the team ‘from the back’ as well as ‘from the front’. In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela compares leading from the back to shepherding, “The shepherd stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow.” When the path is unknown (which is true by definition when seeking breakthrough innovation), leading from behind means facilitating a process of iteration and continuous discovery.

At the same time, the leader provides the overall direction, pointing out the most promising areas of exploration and protecting the team from easy answers or dead alleys. So the shepherd also guides the flock in the direction of ‘good pastures’ and might use his staff to nudge or prod the flock if it strays too far off or towards danger. Essential skills for both shepherds and creative leaders are those of observation and decision-making.  Only when leaders know that their strengths lie in observation and they have sufficient moments to track the state of the team, only then can can they let go enough to really lead from behind. Likewise, when the moment comes to lead from the front creative leadership will need to be swift, decisive, and convincing in order to keep the team fully behind the decision.

And yet creative leadership means being careful that the leader’s ideas are not the final answer. If this happens, the leader has not casted a team that provides a sufficient match or constructive ways of working have slipped. So creative leadership always ensures meritocracy: that ideas don’t get extra weight because of who came up with them. Only then will the end result have benefited from the full team potential.

Managing the energy

Creative team efforts typically go through an initial phase of high expectations with some initial seemingly effortless progress, followed by inevitable problems, loss of direction, and resulting loss of hope and commitment. This problem phase, also known as ‘the groan zone’, invariably takes place and is quite valuable as once survived it truly cements the team and also brings them into new territory, a solution space not yet travelled. Creative leadership can mean aiming for this phase to take place as quickly as possible for maximum bonding effects. By making this phase part of the team’s expectation and calling it out as ‘the groan zone’, the creative leader can prevent it from becoming too disruptive.

The creation process is iterative that it often feels inefficient and like ‘running in circles’. The progress is typically one of ‘two steps forward, one step back’. Time and resources always feel insufficient. Creative leadership means being aware of this and making a conscious effort to focus on the positive rather than the negative, the progress rather than the roadblocks, the long-term objective rather than the short-term operational issues.

Creative leadership includes ensuring the team does not lose its momentum. For this a rich toolkit is needed of ways to avoid loss of energy. First of all the creative leader keeps team balance by maintaining a meritocracy of ideas, encouraging hesitant members, and making overbearing individuals aware of their impact. When personal issues emerge, the creative leader does not hesitate to resolve them. The leader regularly revisits the overall mission and purpose, as teams usually lose the forest for the trees. To keep the team focused on the creative challenge a creative leader takes away operational concerns such as access to resources and planning when possible. He or she makes sure to capture the thinking and syntheses at the end of creation bursts. Also a creative leader ensures commitment/respect from the rest of the organization by shielding the team from opposition and politics while keeping it connected to constructive feedback. A leader will provide structure when there is none and it is needed, for instance by using the magic of milestones to create urgency or by scheduling sharing moments and iterations. In addition to providing structure and process, a creative leader also must understand how to “find and feel the pulse” of the team at any given moment.

Above all, in order to maintain momentum it is key to establish authentic connections with the team. Issues that interrupt creative flow often stem from something deeper than superficial roadblocks. So in addition to providing structure and process, a creative leader also must understand how to “find and feel the pulse” of the team at any given moment.

The team works towards a creative breakthrough and this may require a purposeful unsettling of the team to break out of their old thought patterns. The creative leader should have a good sense for when this is needed and also know when to push for bursts, create breaks or change the setting.  Creative leadership is being both tough and caring, creating safety and encouragement when needed and building up tension or throwing things slightly off kilter at other times. Thus sometimes pulling sometimes pushing the team. Creative leadership means choosing an intervention on either content or context. On content it can mean providing extra challenges, pushing their thinking along or arranging for a new perspective. A context intervention means staying away from content and making a change in the setting or timing. So a team that is stuck in the process might be sent outside to eat ice cream, work somewhere else, or be introduced to an impromptu impossible deadline.

Controlling the skid

A well-casted and orchestrated creative team may start ‘aquaplaning’, i.e. make incredible progress and discover great breakthroughs, seemingly effortlessly. This can be exhilarating, all encompassing, and a truly unforgettable experience for the team members involved. However, at this level the team is so captivated and puts in so much energy that sometimes all work/life balance goes overboard. Creative leadership brings the team to the edge, but not over it. The advice on what to do when aquaplaning in a car is in this sense true here also:

“While a vehicle is aquaplaning, the driver has little if any directional control. Avoid the temptation to slam on the brakes as this action is likely to throw your car into a violent skid. You should also avoid sudden jerking or turning movements of the steering wheel as this too will acerbate the situation. If the vehicle is sliding or skidding, no matter how difficult it is for your brain to accept, initially at least, let the vehicle find its own pathway while simultaneously easing your foot off the accelerator until you can feel friction and traction returning to your wheels.” Source: RoadDriver

Then capture the good work and send them home to sleep.

For many leaders creative leadership is perhaps the most daunting of all situations. It is a field where your own relationship with the unknown will be exposed every time, where the meaning of making a mistake is radically different from how most people have been trained. At its best it is a balancing act that requires you to create the circumstances that your team needs at any given moment, through your own connection, passion, empathy, and curiosity.

By Menno van Dijk, Robert Wolfe

About the authors

Menno Van Dijk, Co-founder and Managing Director at THNK. Menno is a Former McKinsey Director, working in strategy, organizational design and operational improvement in Media, High Tech and Energy. Functional focus: growth, innovation, digital. Work experience in most European countries, US, Australia, South Africa, China and India. Has lived in Netherlands, Australia and South Africa.

Robert has been part of THNK faculty since the beginning of THNK as a leadership coach, storytelling trainer and innovation facilitator. Before he was a management trainer and personal coach in many countries, an improv actor, and he still is a writer of fiction novels for young adults. He specializes in experiential learning and voice dialogue.

THNK‘s mission is twofold: we accelerate the development of creative leaders from across corporate, private, public, and social sectors and from all over the world. Together, we create innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing and inspiring challenges. Dubbed by Stanford University as “the future of higher education”, we stand for creativity, business model innovation, and entrepreneurship for social impact. While a ‘B-school’ professionalizes management and a ‘D-school’ does the same for product design, THNK is a ‘C-school’ that applies creativity for positive change at scale.

This article was originally published on the THNK website.
Main image: Man conducting an orchestra from Shutterstock.com