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Optimizing the Creative Workflow: IWNY 2014

By Matthew T. Grant

Optimizing the Creative Workflow: IWNY 2014

Marya Triandafellos, an Aquent Gymnasium instructor with close to twenty years experience leading and managing creative teams, taught a class at Internet Week New York 2014 focused on optimizing the creative workflow. The goal of the class was to give people tools for diagnosing and solving problems faced by their own creative organization.

Marya concentrated on the three basic components of any creative workflow infrastructure: a technical platform for communication and collaboration; the creative team itself; and a shared knowledge base. Over the course of her class, she described the purpose that each component must serve and posed questions to help uncover areas for closer analysis and potential optimization.


Every creative organization needs a software product or set of products that facilitates communication between team members and clients, project management, and knowledge management. As it turns out, she said, only 56% of creatives surveyed said they had a dedicated tool in place to take care of all this. That means almost half of all creative organizations rely on an ad hoc system of email, spreadsheets, and file-sharing to get the job done!

Since such an improvised set-up can breed it's own inefficiencies, Marya suggested the following questions for thinking through any necessary improvements:

  • Why did the current process evolve into its current form? What problems drove this evolution? Understanding the evolution can help you map out the requirements for any proposed overhaul of the process.
  • What are the bottlenecks in the system? Sometimes the bottlenecks are inherent in the technology, and sometimes they are embedded in the organization of the work. You need to separate platform issues from process issues!
  • How are all the systems integrated? If they are not, or the integration is patchy, that itself might account for inefficiency.
  • Where are the guidelines for tool usage? The system might be quite adequate but underutilized due to a lack of stated best practices.


Marya insisted that, of the three components of creative workflow, the team was the most important, going so far as to say that, if you can only focus on one thing, you should focus on optimizing team communication and collaboration.

Communication can be problematic for several reasons. Sometimes people have perceptual differences, seeing the same situation from different perspectives. Sometimes people have psychological differences that govern their approach to work and communication style. Finally, there can be cultural differences that get in the way of shared understanding.

To close the communications gap, at least on the individual level, Marya suggested first establishing empathy by considering where the person with whom you are trying to communicate is coming from. Furthermore, you need to understand and appreciate how they like to receive information. Effective communication, in other words, involves both taking into account your interlocutor's unique perspective as well as their preferred communication style.

Collaboration, while absolutely necessary for the successful function of a creative team, likewise has some inherent challenges, challenges that boil down to a lack of trust, on the one hand, and the absence of strong relationships between team members on the other (this can be a particularly acute problem on large or distributed teams).

Marya recommended a couple things that can help foster trust and build relationships. The first is making sure that team roles and responsibilities are clearly defined. The second is creating opportunities for team members to work together within the diverse contexts, such as through a mentorship program.

Finally, she suggested the following questions for diagnosing and addressing issues on your team:

  • Who on your team presents a challenge? There may be people on the team who have a lot to contribute but need coaching or guidance when it comes to communication and collaboration.
  • What are the assigned roles and responsibilities of team members? As stated, if these roles and responsibilities are not clear, this alone can generate mistrust, confusion, and inefficiency.
  • Why are there challenges on the team? Take a look at emotional and organizational dynamics on the team to truly understand what is getting it the way.
  • How could you be a facilitator? Whether you are a team member or the team leader, you are part of the team! Think about your own specific role and what you can do to continually improve team dynamics and performance.


In order to highlight the importance of documenting the work your team does and the processes you need to follow, Marya said something that bears repeating, "Structure frees up creativity." Standards, as it turns out, are not antithetical to creative work. In fact, creative work demands them.

The first thing that needs to be documented are project requirements. The creative brief is the classic method for doing this. As Marya put it, the creative brief is both a contract detailing what will be done and a roadmap laying out the various stages for approvals and deliverables.

Secondly, to support alignment between the brand message, the work you are producing, and the needs of the customer you will want to document the overall creative direction. Marya referred to this as visualizing and formalizing your "inspiration." Mood boards are one way organizations handle this.

Thirdly, it is also important to document your team structure. Moving beyond the basic org chart, this can take the form of a matrix that visualizes the relationships between the team and their clients.

Finally, you need to document brand standards and your work processes. The latter, Marya insisted, should actually be fairly detailed and can even take the form of concise recipes for all the deliverables you are called on to produce.

As with the other components of the creative workflow, Marya offered these questions to help diagnose problems with knowledge capture:

  • Where are the weak links? That is, where are processes or roles and responsibilities especially muddy?
  • Who is on your team? What is their role? What is their area of greatest expertise? What are they directly responsible for? 
  • What are your deliverables and what is the exact process for producing them?
  • How can this knowledge help to optimize processes and inspire creativity?

The Value of Paying Attention

Getting your creative organization and workflow in order is no easy task. It's also not something that can be done once and then forgotten. Companies change. Customers change. The nature of creative work changes. You need to be flexible enough to continually update your platform, improve your team, and expand the knowledge that drives the work.

And, in the end, that's what it's about: the work. By paying attention to the key elements of the creative workflow, and addressing any challenges that you identify, you will not only optimize your processes and inspire your team, you will, ultimately, increase the quality of the final product.

Note: Marya has posted her slides on SlideShare.

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