How to orchestrate a creative team

Menno van Dijk 1
April 16th, 2014
Article by: Menno van Dijk, Robert Wolfe
How to orchestrate a creative team

“Come up with something new! And make it good.”


Have you ever said that? More and more leaders nowadays make this demand without thinking twice. Perhaps market circumstances are changing too rapidly and your organization is finding it difficult to keep pace. By commissioning something "new and good", maybe you'll find your way back on the right track. Or maybe you don't quite have a tangible concept in mind for your groundbreaking new product or service, so you've delegated it downwards in the hope that someone else might come up with some useful ideas.


But take a step back for one moment and consider – is this really the right way to spur the creative energy within your team?

Better a Creative Team than a Creative Individual

What have we learned about orchestrating creative teams?

  • A strong creative team typically outperforms the gifted creative individual;
  • A creative team consists ideally of three carefully selected individuals;
  • 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.

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. 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.

The Optimal Creative Team

We need to be clear here: we are speaking about creative teams, not operational teams. 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.

The optimal size for a creative team is three. Anything smaller lacks the diversity to generate creative perspectives, and will seem under-resourced. Larger teams suffer from complexity of coordination. 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.

How to orchestrate a creative team 6
Creative teams work on understanding the problem first and then searching for solutions. Click To Tweet

Smart, Fast & 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 dedicated time and attention on casting and adjusting teams.

Look for certain qualities when you consider the members of the creative team: candidates should have an explorative mindset and passion and purpose in their working lives.When possible, select people whose experience is both deep and broad, something we refer to as a T-shaped individual.  Knowing one field well brings knowledge of what it takes to really make a difference that goes beyond easy and superficial solutions. You want an individual that is, in essence, smart, fast, and fun. People with quicksilver minds, who produce quickly, and are great fun to work with. You should already get a real kick out of the idea of possibly having them on your team.

Knowing which individuals will make creative sparks fly together is a mix of art and science, that often comes from a gut instinct.

Three key elements to consider are:

creative team

"They can't catch us! We're on a mission from God."

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, and their passion around the topic. Create a foundation that respects and understands 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 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, where the team eats and, when necessary, even sleeps.

creative team
Give team members a sense of privilege. It must be clear that they are on an important mission. Click To Tweet

Leading from the Back & Leading from the Front

In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela compares his style of leading 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. The shepherd also guides the flock in the direction of good pastures and might  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 seemingly effortless progress. What follows are inevitable problems, loss of direction, and resulting loss of hope and commitment. This problem phase, ‘the groan zone’, is quite valuable as once survived it truly cements the team and bring them into new territory. Creative leadership can mean aiming for this phase to happen as quickly as possible for maximum bonding effects. By making this phase part of the team’s expectation and calling it as it is, the creative leader can prevent it from becoming too disruptive.

Creative leadership includes ensuring the team does not lose its momentum. A rich toolkit can prevent a 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. 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. A creative leader also 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 it is needed, for instance by using the magic of milestones to create urgency or by scheduling sharing moments and iterations.

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. 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.

creative team
Creative leadership includes ensuring the team does not lose its momentum. Click To Tweet

Controlling the Skid

A well-casted and orchestrated creative team may start aquaplaning toward incredible progress and great breakthroughs. 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.

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, and 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.

To discover how the THNK Executive Leadership Program can help you further develop your potential into leadership ability, visit the program page or contact us at