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The Art & Science of Building Strong Creative Teams

Vision pic

I’m proud to say that the last few years have been extremely transformative for FEE, taking us from an organization with no professional media capabilities at all to a movement leader in creative design and multimedia production.  In this three-part series, I'll share strategies I've used to find success directing and motivating my team.  


Clarifying Your Vision

We have had to intentionally produce conditions where creative people can get into their most open and imaginative states of mind as quickly as possible, and where they have the time and tools they need to solve creative problems effectively.

I believe that there are three essential components to doing this well:

  1. Radical clarity of the creative vision and desired audience;
  2. Flexible working structures that allow individuals to quickly and consistently tap into their most open and imaginative mental states;
  3. Competent, collaborative, and honest feedback that helps shape unconstrained creativity into excellent and practically viable final products

The importance of being able to clearly articulate your creative vision cannot be overstated.

Without knowing what you’re trying to say, who you’re saying it to, and why it matters, you’ll have no hope of conveying the kinds of information your creative collaborators need to do their jobs effectively.

This does not mean that you should know what the end result will look like in advance -- if you already knew that, then there would be no point in hiring specialized creative professionals in the first place.

What it does mean is that you should work to identify the specific problem you’re trying to solve by producing a piece of creative media and how to communicate your needs to the people who will ultimately be responsible for imagining and executing the solution to that problem.

It also means that you need to invest the time and effort to understand what you want to accomplish before you begin working on the final product.

There will be plenty of room to experiment and play with different approaches throughout the development and feedback process, but the one thing that should ideally never change is the goal of the project itself. If you begin a project by telling your designer or video producer that you’re trying to reach high school students in Dallas, TX with a message about how entrepreneurship is a path to personal fulfillment, the ideas they come up with are probably not going be useful if you suddenly change to a goal of talking to college students in Chicago about occupational licensing.

A set of creative goals that’s constantly shifting is like quicksand under the artists’ feet. Nothing will sink a project faster.

But the question remains:  Once we have a clear understanding of the problem we wish to solve and the basic vision for the project, how do we decide what to create in a world of endless possibilities?

The Seven Criteria of Project Selection

Deciding which creative projects to attempt is an incredibly difficult job, both as an artist and as any kind of executive producer or creative director.

We live in a world of infinite creative ideas but painfully finite resources. Each of us has a limited set of resources and skills, goals and values, and most importantly a limited amount of time with which to create, so it will never be possible to pursue every idea we have, no matter how good it seems on the surface.

In my estimation, there are no fewer than 7 specific criteria that must all align before a project makes sense, and each of these is variable and carries different weight on the decision.

First, as obvious as it might seem, we must start with a genuinely (1) Good Idea that can translate well to the chosen medium (video, audio, design, etc.).

Ideas are easy to come by, but frequently (especially in the nonprofit world), they aren’t workable, interesting, or compelling. Over the past 15+ years that I've been producing original creative content, I've generated and/or been pitched several hundred different concepts, but very few of those were actually good for the intended medium.

Visual (and auditory) storytelling is different than writing an article, a white paper, or a book, and writing for video or designing artwork for digital or print distribution are special skills that take thinking beyond abstract concepts or dialogue, so finding an idea that actually makes sense for the medium is not easy—especially in an environment dominated by left-brained, systemizing thinkers such as economists, philosophers, and political scientists.

But beyond merely having a Good Idea, these ideas must (2) Fit Brand’s Vision, and they must (3) Fit Brand’s Tone.

For example, FEE is a 72-year-old institution with the crucial mission of advancing a free society, so producing any good idea still isn't enough. It must be an idea that actually advances our vision of a free society in some meaningful way.

In addition, because FEE is an organization that caters to parents, young students, and the general public; because it has donors to attract and keep; and because we have a long-standing legacy to uphold, we must also be very careful about the tone we present to our audiences.

The tone we want to cultivate at FEE is “optimistic, empowering, dynamic, morally principled, credible, and collaborative.”

This is can be a tough needle to thread when we also want to dominate social media. It’s no secret that much of the most shareable content online is pessimistic or angry, sarcastic, insulting, tribal, and deceptive. In general, if you can get someone to feel outraged or present them with content that provides a new reason to hate an enemy or pat themselves on the back, you’re probably going to get them to click on your content and possibly share it with their friends.

For example, there is no shortage of content like this on social media:


Note that in both of these cases, apart from simply being poorly designed and ugly to look at, the images are intended to pit one group of people against another and rely on creating a sense of outrage or anger to connect with its intended audiences. My view is that while this is quite often the easiest path to success online, it is also frequently unethical and probably damaging to society in general.

More importantly, from the standpoint of project selection at an organization like FEE, "good ideas" that are mean-spirited, inappropriate, fail to honor donor intent, which violate 501(c)3 rules, or fail to comply with the law in some other way simply must be rejected.

From there, once we have a Good Idea that Fits FEE's Vision and Tone, I begin asking questions about the idea as a matter of strategy. Is the idea (4) Relevant to an Audience that we're trying to reach? Is it actually (5) Likely to Succeed given all that we currently know about what's trending, what topics or styles are popular, and what kinds of stories people, in general, seem to respond to? Is it (6) Unique, both to FEE (ie. do we have overlapping projects happening simultaneously?) and to the market at large (ie. is someone else doing this already?) and thus unnecessary?

Last, but perhaps most importantly of all, we have to be realistic and ask whether this idea is actually (7) Possible to Execute.

Getting Realistic About What's Possible

Like many other organizations in our network, FEE has an incredibly small production team—just 3 full-time staff members and a number of independent editors and producers who work on specific projects.

This means that we have serious limitations both with regards to time and to overall capabilities.  

We have an excellent team, but quality media production is still an incredibly difficult and complex process that requires a variety of skill sets from understanding and internalizing aesthetic ideas like story, design, composition, framing, rhythm/pacing, etc. to hard skills like using cameras, lights, editing & visual effects software, and other technology. We also have a budget significantly under those found in the broader media industry, and yet a core goal of the YEAR project requires us to be able to produce a wide variety and large quantity of content, so we need to make all of our resources go as far as we can.

Another, often underrated, aspect of assessing whether or not a project is truly "possible" is how passionate the creative team that will actually work on it is about the idea.

Our now award-winning documentary series, "How We Thrive" is successful partly because the director/producer team contracted to shoot and edit those films went into the project with a strong passion for telling stories about female entrepreneurs. That passion inspires them to work harder, pay closer attention to the fine details, and care enough to get every aspect of the film right.

It’s a similar story with my own video essay series.

Out of Frame” has generated several million views on YouTube since it started, contributing significantly to our rapid growth in subscribers on that platform -- from a virtually dead channel to over 100k in around a year and a half. But that would not have been possible if I wasn’t personally interested and invested in the style of the presentation, the content, and the ideas I’m writing about each month.

In fact, doing a monthly series that I did not enjoy working on would become a nearly unbearable chore and would not be remotely sustainable.


Regardless of their level of professionalism and talent, pairing a producer or a production team with a project they aren’t passionate about will not create the same results as pairing them with a project they care about, and that fact should play a major role in project selection.

Even when a project is technically possible, a lack of creative inspiration can be even more destructive than a low budget or tight schedule.

After taking into consideration all these criteria, we end up with a pretty narrow set of projects that are truly viable and a lot of projects that might seem like good ideas on the surface but are out of reach. There are a lot of tough choices that need to be made in that regard, based on our judgment of what's feasible.

These seven steps are essential to making effective production decisions and if well-understood can help organizations and individuals create their best possible creative work.

They’re also the basis for defining a radically clear creative vision, because that kind of clarity only comes with deeply understanding not only your audience, but also the goals of the project you’re trying to create and why such a project is actually the right fit for your organization.

Once your vision is clear, it’s time to figure out how to execute.

For that, we need to proactively build work environments that encourage openness and creativity so that our people are empowered to come up with their best ideas, and then we need to understand on how to use quality feedback to iterate better final products.

This begins with understanding the science of creativity.

Stay tuned for Part II, The Psychology of Creativity and Shaping Innovative Working Environments.  

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