Managing Creative Businesses

Practical strategies for coordinating different types of work.

March 2021

Introduction

How do we corral “creative” activities like writing, research or engineering within manageable businesses? Technology firms provide models, with programmers developing software on one side and sales teams selling it on the other. These complementary activities require coordination and structure. 

At Forisk, I serve as CEO of a business that relies on delivering research, analysis and support to clients. We generate income through subscriptions, consulting fees and registrations to educational courses and our annual conference. A critical challenge is the day-to-day protection of time and space for (1) applied research and (2) responsive support for clients and prospects. Our business depends on both. 

Makers and Managers

Years ago, I read “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule,” a widely cited essay by the programmer, writer and investor Paul Graham. He distinguishes between “makers” who need large chunks of uninterrupted time to produce and “managers” who operate out of their “appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals.”

The world needs makers: writers, programmers, artists, scientists, entrepreneurs. For makers, any interruption – phone, fax, candygram – can undermine a day by breaking it into scattered chunks. The world also needs managers: executives, directors, administrators, coordinators. For managers, each day is a continual effort to facilitate activities and mitigate issues. However, problems arise when makers and managers must reconcile their schedules to meet and work together.

Graham’s framework helped me understand that, as a researcher and writer and executive, I was, fundamentally, a maker serving in a managerial role. 

Strategies for Managing a Business of Makers

Creative business must manage their daily realities. In situations where a single phone call can disrupt an entire team – wrong person answers the phone, and that person interrupts another person, and so on – hiring a good administrator to block and screen helps everyone. Managers understand that makers “need” a certain kind of space, and makers understand that they are part of team that requires regular input and attention. 

What else have we learned?

Block scheduling works.[1] When our team dedicates days or parts of days to certain types of work (and we put ourselves in an environment to get that work done), we give ourselves an opportunity to be more engaged, creative and productive. This is why firms have off-site strategic planning sessions or dedicated times for project reviews. 

Calendars provide the time, but not the space. Scheduling work on a central calendar, so everyone sees when you are in “maker mode”, is necessary but insufficient. Put yourself in a proper environment to get this work done, whether in the office with the door closed and email off, at the public library or in your basement.

Makers require milestones and deadlines. Our publication calendar is set a year in advance. This helps lead authors and researchers know to start aggregating ideas and data. Periodic milestones for small deliverables – outlines, literature reviews, data sets – focus creative effort while balancing the need to “manage” the process. We agree on goals and work together to meet them.

Office hours work. Prior to Forisk, I was a professor and used office hours to confirm and communicate my availability to meet with students. This helped me and the students. Paul Graham and Cal Newport also cite office hours.

Conclusion

Optimal work and production schedules rarely develop organically. In practice, not everyone gets to choose their own schedule, so be clear and discuss the coordination of activities, by type, openly. This builds trust so that each person believes everyone else is working on the right things as best they can to support the team.


[1] I became aware of block scheduling from a 2008 Cal Newport blog post and his book Deep Work. In the essay “Notes on Managing Yourself” I apply this strategy to managing our individual time and energy.

My thanks to Loren Mendell for his suggestions and feedback on an earlier draft of this essay.

1 Comment

  1. Agree! Interruption is the enemy of creativity. I spend much of my day writing for my corporate job and had a lot of difficulty finishing things at the office because I was always being interrupted by colleagues. I need to work off-site a couple days per week to get everything done.

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