Managing extraordinarily creative people is challenging if not impossible. But you can bring out their best if you give them leverage, inspire and enable them. Their leverage comes from understanding and taking full advantage of their own natural talent, temperament and inclinations. Inspiring them is about protecting them, pointing the way forward and encouraging them. Enabling them is about giving them the resources, time and space they need to imagine, play, practice and create.
By anyone’s definition, Salient Technologies’ David Yakos is extraordinarily creative. Origins magazine describes him as one of its 45 top creatives and an “Inventor, maker, designer, painter, adventurer, and engineer. From aerospace to toys, he blurs the lines between art and engineering.”
(This last piece sounds a lot like what sparked the magic at Disney’s creative oasis – Imagineering.)
I’ve gotten to know David through several HATCH experiences and spoke with him for this article.
The world needs three types of leaders: artistic, scientific and interpersonal. They need to be creative themselves and bring out creativity in others. For example David likes to “confuse the world of art and engineering.” Just as he is part artist and part mechanical engineer, his product development process blends creativity and practicality “from ideation to production”:
1. Conceptual design, where you explore the look and function of the concept.
2. The prototype process, where you physically and digitally test the feel and function.
3. The production design, where you communicate with the factory the design intent using manufacturing files and engineering drawings.
David’s mother saw this innate talent and nurtured it. In an interview with Tanya Thompson, David described how,
My mother cut down an empty drier box, filled it with supplies including empty shampoo bottles, egg cartons, string and everything else I would need to build my first spaceship, first homemade pair of paper shoes and a cardboard robot suit. It was David’s Creative Corner. I could visit that world and come back with something new, an invention that was unique and never before seen.
In line with Leslie Owen Wilson’s thinking on creative traits, David has a natural curiosity, intellectual playfulness, a keen sense of humor and is aware of his own impulses.
Extraordinarily creative people need to be protected, directed and encouraged. At the same time, Wilson suggests they need to be uninhibited and willing to take risks given their heightened emotional sensitivity and being perceived as nonconforming.
David knows that “all great businesses begin with an idea, but it takes engineering and product development to turn an idea into a reality.” That’s his focus and his firm’s focus. And they’ve done well through the years, winning Popular Science’s Best Prototype of 2013 and currently nominated for the Chicago Toy & Game Group’s Toy & Game Innovation (TAGIE) award for excellence in toy design for David’s Mega Tracks for Lionel Trains.
Enabling extraordinarily creative people is about tools and time. They need resources, connections and basic tools. And they need time to play and learn in line with Wilson’s premise that the most creative go through a large number of ideas, often thriving in disorder and chaos.
David told me that “People are almost embarrassed with their own creativity. We need to give people permission to stop being adults and engage in child-like imaginative play. It’s not about learning how to be imaginative or creative. It’s about never growing out of it…I live in a safe place where it is okay to have silly ideas and safe to fail as part of taking “a broad sweep of ideas, (and) polishing the best ones.”
And they need people around them with complementary strengths that can sometimes serve as the adults in the room.
1. Don’t try to fix extraordinarily creative peoples’ “opportunities for improvement”. Help them be even better at what they are already good at.
2. Encourage them by protecting them, pointing the way forward and recognizing the cool things they come up with and do.
3. Give them the time and space they need to imagine, play, practice and…wait for it…create.