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Miss Conduct

‘Mad Men’ at work: Who is more creative, Megan or Stan?

PIma Rogers (left) consults with Peggy and Stan in Sunday night’s “Mad Men” episode.AMC

“I try to treat it like art, even though we’re selling something.” -- Stan Rizzo

“All art is selling something.” – Pima Ryan

How do you know if your work is good?

If you’re a lawyer or a salesperson or a heart surgeon, you know. You win the case. You earn your commission. Your patient lives.

What if you’re an artist?

Though Sunday’s “Mad Men” was primarily concerned with the messy romantic lives of its lead characters, the business side of the episode focused on the difficulties of professional creatives. At SC&P, Stan and Peggy were discombobulated by bohemian, menswear-sporting photographer Pima Ryan, while Megan, in New York to finalize her divorce from Don, sought help from Harry to advance her acting career.

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One of the difficulties of creative work — doing it, managing it, or studying it — is that its quality is hard to measure. Psychologists define creativity as novelty plus appropriateness: to be creative, a work has to bring some “New Business” (the title of Sunday’s episode) into an established form. Too much novelty, and the work becomes incomprehensible. Too much “appropriateness,” and the new piece is merely a variation on a theme (like Don’s latest in a series of troubled brunettes). The trick is to balance the new with the established, but the precise optimal nature of that balance is largely subjective.

The subjective element in judging creative work is amplified by market forces. What is good is not necessarily what sells. And yet the selling is necessary, if only because the selling is when the work can be seen. Megan Draper doesn’t need to act for money, but she still needs to compete in the talent market if she ever wants an audience other than the sweaty Harry Crane.

The quality of creative work is difficult to judge in the moment, and has only a tangential relation to the work’s ultimate success. If artists are neurotic, it’s less because of a romantic temperament and more because of the random and inconsistent feedback they get on their work.

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Managing creative people, therefore, can be a challenge. Studying managing creative people is also a challenge, because real-world creative groups are busy and shaggy around the edges and hard to pin down and compare, while laboratory attempts to simulate creativity don’t necessarily apply outside the lab. Two of the best researchers in the field are Teresa Amabile and Mukti Khaire at Harvard Business School, whose 2008 summary of the conversations at a two-day conference on managing creativity is both a self-contained great read and a good jumping-off point for further research.

The good news is that managing creative people doesn’t require endless massaging of egos, but giving your team what they need and getting out of their way. Team is a crucial word: While Western notions of creativity still enshrine the idea of the lone genius, most creative work in the arts, technology, and business is done in teams. Some of the elements that make these teams work include:

Collaboration. Communication and compensation systems should be designed to facilitate and reward teamwork and helping others succeed, not only individual merit. Leaders should model collaboration through humility, asking questions, and giving credit where it is due.

Diversity. Collaboration only enhances creativity if the collaborating minds are different — otherwise, it’s just so many people talking to themselves. Diversity enhances creativity, but shouldn’t only be defined in demographic terms: diversity of expertise, personality, and work history also matters.

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Freedom to work. A key role of managers is to clear bureaucratic hurdles and makework out of the way so that creatives can focus on their actual projects, and not on status reports or office politics. Team members should understand the purpose and importance of the project they are working on, and be able to see clear progress on a near-daily basis.

An understanding of the creative process. Developing a creative product or solution doesn’t happen all at once. Ideas must be generated, sorted through, refined, implemented, tested, refined again, repeat as necessarily, and ultimately commercialized. Each of these phases requires different management skills and styles—the pragmatic, get-it-out-the-door mode of commercialization is dead wrong for generating ideas, for example. Wise managers know where their team is and what they need at any given point.

“New Business” provided three different takes on creative careers. Peggy is in the strongest position. For a long time now, she has believed in her work, even when bosses like Lou Avery were happy to accept mediocrity. She knows the difference between her best work and work that the client will accept. She’s clear on what is commerce, what is art, and what success looks like in each domain.

Megan is not. “This is what happens when you have the artistic temperament but are not an artist,” her mother Marie decreed in season 5, and while cruel, her words are true. Megan, though a gifted adwoman, decided that copywriting lacked artistic merit and turned to acting to impress her father and out-do her friends. Megan’s creative career is doomed: Not only does she lack intrinsic motivation, but she is completely unmanaged, with no team, no mentor, and only venal and self-interested parties attempting to advise her.

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Stan Rizzo is more grounded than Megan, but still conflicted. Of the three, Stan has the fullest and most complicated creative life — he works in various media, from pencil to photograph, and expresses many different sides of himself, from politics to sexuality, through his art. Yet the breadth of his creativity leaves him, at times, lost. What is he really — a photographer? A sketch artist? An idea man? A manager? Can he be successful at all those things? No wonder Peggy thinks he has a “huge ego” and Pima believes he “hates himself.” Both are true.

Creative people are vulnerable, “New Business” showed us—vulnerable not because the price of creativity is craziness, but because the very nature of the work is destabilizing. Micromanaging and mother-henning is out; clearing roadblocks and instilling a sense of purpose is in. Managing creative may be a challenge, but you have to admit it beats playing golf with Pete Campbell.


Robin Abrahams writes the Miss Conduct advice column in the Globe Magazine and works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. She can be reached at missconduct@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @robinabrahams.

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