How to Scale Your Creative Team: Part 2
Balancing the Whelm Scale

Strong teams don’t develop by accident. 

A good manager doesn’t control every facet of a project or try to accomplish everything themselves. In fact, that mindset is a barrier to growth. In part four of How to Scale Your Creative Team, learn how to delegate responsibility so team members take ownership of their work and learn how to gauge whether each member is feeling over, under, or perfectly “whelmed.” 

Listen to part 4 of this series to gain more specific insights, like: 

  • Different methods for assigning responsibility, and how to find the one that’s right for your team.
  • How to evaluate a team member’s workload and notice signs of burnout.
  • The value of the right technology when it comes to internal scaling.
mentioned in this show:
Adam Morgan
Executive Creative Director Adobe
The Stoke Group
Digital Marketing and Full-Service Content Agency

Leave a comment


Adam W. Morgan:

Even with the latest software, it'll just list everyone's name. You can go to your Trello cards, you can go to your Workfront, you can go to whatever project management software you use, and you'll see a person and the list of projects they have. But that doesn't really tell you how busy, or overwhelmed, or underwhelmed they are. So what I came up with is what I call the "whelm scale". And the whelm scale, it's really trying to figure out all of those elements that go into play into making a person feel overwhelmed or underwhelmed. If you remember anything from this episode, it's the whelm scale. Are you underwhelmed, overwhelmed, and how do you make sure your team is perfectly "whelmed"?

Welcome to Real Creative Leadership, a place where creative leaders can find insights and practical guidance on the day-to-day job of being a creative leader. We focus on real issues, topics, and insights of creativity in the business world. Join me as we explore the best strategies for developing your team, getting others to embrace your vision, and generating amazing experiences. This webinar series is produced by The Stoke Group. I'm your host, Adam Morgan, Adobe executive creative director, author of "Sorry, Spock, Emotions Drive Business". And this is Real Creative Leadership.

Hello, and welcome back to Real Creative Leadership. I'm your host, Adam Morgan, executive creative director at Adobe. This is brought to you by The Stoke Group, a full-service and digital marketing agency in Silicon Slopes. Welcome back, and thanks for listening. Whether you're joining this live for the webinar or binge-watching later on the podcast, I appreciate you joining and listening.

Just a quick reminder of what Real Creative Leadership is all about. So, in my experience, there are a million ways that you can learn how to write better, or design better, on the web or at events. But there's very little in this world in terms of creative leadership. And leadership is different for creative people. You're running a creative department, running a creative team, very different than just traditional leadership. And so the whole point of this series is to bring best practices, tips, insights — like a guidebook of all the things that you've never had, around creative leadership. And my goal is to make sure that we give it in a way that it's easy to understand, and easy for you to put into practice. And hopefully, the goal is that at the end of the day, all of us together can raise the level of creative leadership in this world, and make a bigger impact on business. So that's what Real Creative Leadership is all about. So thanks for listening.

And today, we are on How to Scale Your Creative Team. So, the reason why there were two parts is there was just too much to talk about. Last time, we talked about how to scale your team externally with agencies, and freelancers, and all of that. And today, we're going to talk about, how do you scale yourself, and how do you manage and scale your internal team? So, first I want to talk about yourself. So this is really important. As a creative leader, and even, I would say, just in general, I've seen a lot during this COVID crisis of people talking about self-care. And I think a lot of that stuff is really, really important. Because if you don't figure out your limitations, then you're going to burn out. And burnout is terrible in our industry. It happens a lot. I've seen many creative leaders burn out and then just disappear from the scene, or try a new industry, or whatever it may be. And it's just sad, 'cause we're losing a lot of good talent. So, let's first talk a little bit about ourselves. So, in our industry it's interesting. I kind of see this pendulum, right? On one end, it's this almost martyr badge of honor that we want to do everything. We want to go out and say, "No, I'm the hardest working person on the team. I'm the hardest working person at the company. I can do everything. I don't need help. I can just do it all myself." And that's certainly a path to burnout. Certainly. On the other end, we have things like, if you've ever read the book "Essentialism", there's another creative director at Adobe, my friend Josh, and we argue about the differences between being an essentialist, versus trying to do everything. And he's certainly an essentialist, and maybe I try and do everything; we're always battling it out. But on that other end of essentialism, there's a lot of advice out there of saying, "You just need to say no to more projects. You need to just learn to push back. You need to just learn to hold up the hand and say stop." Right? And in my opinion, I don't think that going all the way to just saying no all the time — and essentialism, in theory for me is nice — but it's not practical. Like, I just find that the people who are true essentialists are just, you know, they leave a wake of stuff behind them, where everyone else is picking up the pieces 'cause they're just ignoring it all. But trying to do everything and be everything to everyone is also a recipe for failure, because you're just going to be in meetings all day long, and all night long, and working yourself to the bone. So, to me, I think it's all about finding that perfect middle ground, So, first things first. Before you scale your team, before you scale anything, start with yourself. Find out where your limitations are, find out how you need to do "enough", or when you don't need to do too much. Right? And I know that's really hard to say just in theory, but let me give you some practical advice from me personally.

So, for me, it's a story of where I found the extreme of my limit. And this happened in, funny as it is, in a recession, not this one, but the one back in 2008. And back then, I was working as an executive creative director of an agency in Utah. And during that recession, we had layoffs, there were a lot of people who left, there were not as many resources. And I found myself in a position where I had to take on the responsibility of multiple jobs, because we didn't have enough people, or we couldn't pay enough people to do all of it. And so I ended up working. And from what I remember, there was this three-week period that I worked so many hours, and I worked so long, and so hard. It was like 100+ hour work weeks. And in that three weeks, never once did I see my family. So my wife and kids, I never saw them. And here's the crazy part: I wasn't out of town. I wasn't off on a video or TV shoot for a week and a half. I wasn't gone at some event. I was here and I was home. The problem is, I either spent the night at the office several times, or I'd come in super, super late and wake up super early in the morning, and take off. Or I even spent the night on a couch at a video-editing bay somewhere when we're putting together some film. So the short of it was, in those three weeks I didn't even see my family. And I worked so long, and so hard, that I kind of consider that my dark days. It was just way too much. Like, that was the absolute limit. And I know it was terrible. I know — like, that Saturday, after those three weeks when I first actually was home, I just got a note from my wife, and she said, "Peace out. You take care of the kids. I'm gone." 'Cause she hadn't had a break either, so she took off. And I saw her later that night. But to me, the whole moral of that story is that I never, ever, ever want to get to that place again. I never want to work that hard. Like, that is just working myself way too hard, and it's just a formula for burnout. And so any time things start to get close to that, I need to put in limits. I need to get into the swing, back to that balance in the middle, and not just be a hero and work my guts out just because that's our industry. Right? So, I never want that to happen again.

But I also don't want the other extreme, which is, you're not working enough, and then you don't have a job, and there's nothing to do, and you're not making income. So, finding the balance is really critical. So I'd encourage you...I don't know what your limits are on either end, but if anything, it's just taking some time to think about it: "What are my personal limits, top and bottom? What can I do to help balance things out a little?" And this is not something we just do once and you're done. I'm doing it all the time. Even right now, during this COVID work-from-home thing — as you can see I'm recording here in my front room. 'Cause you're so accessible now to everyone. It's, "How many meetings should I take? Should I schedule time for myself?" You know, early on in this whole thing, when it started out, I was just packed with meetings day and night, and I was not getting a break. And I was going stir crazy. I think I'm getting a little bit better at it now, where I'm finding limits of where I can scale myself, and I can work hard and do stuff, and then where I need to do some self-care and I need to go do something different, and just get away from the monitor, and all the meetings and all that. So, step one, figure out your limits.

Now, another element that you have to keep in mind with this is, one of the biggest issues I see with creative leaders, especially young, new creative leaders, is that they try to do it all themselves. Like, they definitely push for that hero mentality. And I just want to let you know, one thing that's really important is, at this point, if you're a creative leader, you're no longer being judged about how many hours you work. Instead, it's the overall value of the project. Meaning, to show that you're a really good manager, a really good leader, you don't have to just pull all-nighters all the time, and then just show up at the team and be like, "Look what I did." Right? In fact, that's, in my opinion, a sign of bad leadership. You shouldn't be extending yourself too far, because what that means to me is that you're trying to do it all yourself and you haven't learned how to delegate. You haven't learned how to scale a team, and work with your team, rather than essentially micromanaging it all and trying to do it yourself. So, rule number one as a creative leader: Don't try and do it all yourself. Don't take over all the projects. Your job is to support and guide, but let your team do it. I mean, what I call it is a mature management style. A mature management style says, "I have my team and I trust them. I'm going to give them guidelines, but then they need accountability to handle it." A non-mature management style would be, "Here's the things and they're not doing it. I'm just gonna take it back, do it all, rewrite it, redesign it, re-edit the video, find the music myself, and then give it back to 'em." It's just like the whole thing of teaching someone to fish. Like, that's not teaching them how to fish, that's just grabbing all the fish for yourself. Right? And maybe in our culture of marketing and advertising, it is a very competitive environment, and you're used to proving that you're the best and the most awesome. But a good, mature management style is to guide, is to give feedback, give a vision, show them where you need to try different things, or not do certain things, and then let them do it. And so, part of your job is just to get out of the way and make sure they feel that ownership. Because if they're worth their salt, they will step up and they will show their own accountability. Otherwise, you're just enabling them. So, something important to keep in mind. You know, some of the phrases that I hear around this kind of stuff is, "Oh, it's faster, I'll just do it myself." Right? Like, "I want to help my team, but it's just, we don't have time, so I'm just going to do it myself." If you hear yourself saying that, it's a bad idea that you're not scaling, you're not scaling yourself. Or maybe you're just going to say, "It's a matter of resources", or you know, whatever it may be. The truth is, you need to find a way to scale your team, and you need to teach, and guide, and give vision. And this is also true, not just with your internal team. This is true with agencies you work with. I see this happening all the time, working with an outside agency, and instead of just going through the hassle, they're like, "Oh, they'll just take it in-house and just fix it up, and then show them what it was." That's just really bad feedback. You should be working with them. If they're an agency that you're not wanting to work with anymore, I totally get it. But if this is a long-term partnership, and you need scale, then — you know, it's not that I'm saying treat your agency like an internal employee — I'm not saying that at all. But, in good partnership, good leadership, you should give good feedback and help guide, so that they're getting better at the work, so that in the future, you don't have to redo all their work. You don't have to go back and change it all. So...anyhow, enough with that, that's all about yourself. Think about your limits, and then scale yourself by not micromanaging — people don't call it micromanaging. They want it to be good quality, right? But just don't do it. Just make sure you're guiding and leading, not doing.

Alright. So now, after yourself, let's start talking about your internal creative team. And whether you have a group of designers and writers, or you're managing a video team, or you're managing whatever production group, these are some of the different things that I've run across over my two and a half decades of leadership. So, the biggest thing that I usually have to deal with is either the pool model, versus the ownership model. And let me explain the difference. The pool model is where you take your whole team and you're like, "We just want them to have access to everything. So we'll make just a big pool of all the resources. And then as the projects come in, we'll just cherry pick different people for different projects, and pull them out of the pool, and put them on different lists." Right? So the idea that most people have is that with the pool model, you can scale better, because no one is isolated in a silo. So you're all just in this big pool, and we can use everyone as needed. And I've found, to be honest, my personal experience with the pool model is that it's terrible. And here's why. Number one, it's a thankless job to have to chase down and figure out what everyone's doing all the time, right? Especially when you're assigning new projects. Then, if I need to assign this new project, I have to go through everyone's list to see who's got availability, and then start assigning things. And it's just so much more work actually, on whoever the operations or the account manager is to get that all figured out and assigned. So it's just this thankless job of chasing it all down. The next side effect that's bad is that no one in the pool feels accountability. They're just in the pool, with all the germs and all the kid pee in the pool, it's just there. And they don't feel like they have to worry about any stakeholders. They don't have to worry about partnerships. They don't have to worry about anything. And so, the tendency is just to kind of float back to the bottom, and just wait for something to be given to you. And so I found that it's really, really bad with the pool approach. It demoralizes the team. They don't feel like they have an opportunity to shine, or grow, or have ownership for themselves. So I would highly discourage you to think that scaling equals the pool model. Don't do it.

Now, the other approach that I've tried and have had great success with, is more of the ownership approach. And that's where you'll go through and see all the different — whether it's clients, or products, or divisions, or things, types of projects that you have — and you split it up so that each person on your team has ownership of a chunk of content, or a chunk of clients, whatever it may be, that's good for their skillset. So one person may be really good at scripting, so I'm gonna put them on writing video projects. And another one's really, really good at short form. We're gonna put them on email and landing page. Someone's really, really good at long form design. We're going to put them on the content team. So, what you do is you split it up into chunks. You assign people their priority chunk. And then they have the opportunity to own that thing, work with stakeholders, work with clients, work with everyone else on the team and feel like they're tighter and closer-aligned with all of that. And that way they feel that ownership, they feel the pride, the sense of accountability, and they're going to make sure that they're going to do the best job for that chunk. Now, to scale them in that model, we still have people flex on to other projects because those small chunks — one may be you have a ton of videos at one time and not a lot of emails, or vice versa. It doesn't matter. But with that model, you can still scale people across. And I'm going to talk to how busy they are in just a minute. But you can still scale across, and have people from these different chunks go over and help out when something lights on fire and you really need all hands on deck. Totally fine. And in those situations, it's the same thing as if you're doing the pool model. You're still flexing people over. But the benefit is, when you're organizing things, your new project comes in and it's for this certain thing, you know who the people are, you know who it goes to, and chances are, they have good history with that thing, so they can go through and do the project faster. With the pool model, every single time you bring someone new on a different project, especially if it's a big agency or a big company, they're having to relearn stuff or get up to speed on everything. And so it slows down the whole process. It's actually not faster at scale. So, the accountability model: Align people with certain projects, clients, or chunks, and then have them flex over as they have more availability, or if they have more projects, then bring the other team around as well. So, even though it seems like it's putting everyone in silos, it's not. It's really giving them ownership and accountability, and then as a team, we still come together as a team, look at that master list, figure out priorities, and then make sure everyone has a balanced workload. So, those are the two models.

Alright, next, really briefly — well, not briefly. For a while, I want to talk about, one of the biggest issues is knowing if those on your team are over- or underloaded. We have so many software tools and spreadsheets, and it's a constant chore of, like I said earlier, chasing around to see who has availability. And while I am a big proponent of the master list, like I want to see the full list of all the projects we have, and who's assigned to each of those projects, but sometimes, even with the latest software, it'll just list everyone's name. You can go to your Trello cards, you can go to your Workfront, you can go to whatever project management software you use, and you'll see a person and the list of projects they have. But that doesn't really tell you how busy, or overwhelmed, or underwhelmed they are. And I'm going to get into that more in detail. And the reason why is because, on that list, maybe half of the things are already out for review, right? Or maybe half of the things are fast, little one-hour projects. And then you're trying to compare just by a list of names of projects to someone else's list. And even if you say you're doing a sprint model, where you're like, "Okay, we're gonna do big chunks, medium chunks, small chunks", or somehow give points to these things, even if you have equal points, it's still hard to know when those things are actually in process, or due, or you're waiting on feedback, all that kind of stuff. And that's just the project list. There's so much more to how overloaded or underloaded someone feels. So what I came up with is what I call the "whelm scale". And the whelm scale is really trying to figure out all of those elements that go into play into making a person feel overwhelmed or underwhelmed. So, what you're seeing here now is just a whelm scale I came up with when I was at an agency, and it shows a lot of different elements that are at play in knowing how balanced you are. Because, you know, time sheets, that's just one element. And even though they're a cursed thing and I hate them, time sheets are just one thing of knowing how much time someone is full. Except the fact that it's all fake numbers anyhow. But knowing the number of projects, the number of major deadlines, minor deadlines, how many big presentations — cause there's a lot of prep work in getting ready for a presentation, even if you've already done the work on the project — timelines, number of projects, meetings. How many big meetings are you in? For example, for me, I may not have a huge list of projects for my team, but I am in meetings all day. I could have six to eight to ten meetings a day, in half-hour, hour chunks. And I'm really, really busy because I don't have the time to be working on writing, or designing, or anything else. I also have been here late nights. How often are people staying late, or they're going home early, or they're taking the ability to take lunch. And even though that sounds very extreme, in that I don't want to perpetuate people feeling like they have to stay late, or they have to skip a lunch, or any of those things, but all of this stuff combined is really what gives you a good measure of how whelmed you are. And then, here's the next best part about the whelm scale is, unlike our project management lists that just tell us how busy a person is, the whelm scale is self-reporting. And the reason why this is important is, let's say I just went out to everyone on my team and said, "Hey, are you guys overwhelmed or not?" Inevitably, I guarantee the person who says they're overwhelmed or feels overwhelmed probably has the least amount of projects, and the person who's not overwhelmed but asks for more and is eager, they're probably the rockstar that has a ton of projects and will continue to take more projects. So that's not a really good indication of who's got more, who's got less. But when I created the whelm scale, and I say, "Look at this: In the middle of five, here is the average amount. Here's what a whelmed person should have." The number of projects, the number of hours, the number of meetings, the number of things. They can see how they can compare against all the other people on their team. And they can say, "Oh, okay. Even though I feel overwhelmed at two projects, I'm looking at everyone else, and they're not overwhelmed until it's, like, ten or twenty projects." So this helps balance out a load, so you get an equal amount of whelmness from each person on your team. So the way this works with the whelm scale is, when we have our weekly meeting and we can go through all the lists of projects, as we're assigning new projects out, first we want to check and say, "All right, everyone self-report, what's your whelm scale? Once you see your existing amount of work, are you at a five? Are you at a two or three? Are you at seven and eight?" We'll get a sense of how whelmed they are — and they report back in only accountability on that, based on the scale of everyone else — and then when we know that, then we know we can add more projects to different people, or take projects away, or flex resources one way or another. Super, super helpful. And for me it's been a great system of taking all of those things into account when you're really balancing your team. So, if you remember anything from this episode, it's the whelm scale. Are you underwhelmed, overwhelmed, and how do you make sure your team is perfectly whelmed? What I would encourage you to do is, you could take a snapshot of mine, but go back and really think about your business — your team, and what kind of things, what kind of projects, how much time, how much energy, types of presentations, all those things — make a scale for your own team that you think is important. And then balance it all out, and then present it to your team, and have them self-select where they stand. So, that is the whelm scale.

Alright, so we've talked about, how do you scale yourself, how do you scale your team, how do you balance everything, make sure it's all good. The last thing I want to talk about is, how do you use technology to help scale? So I'm not just talking about project management systems. We'll do a whole separate episode on that, because there's a lot involved with that software. But more I just want to talk a little bit about, as a creative team, we use tech in a different way. Meaning, when we're doing projects and we're designing and we're writing, there's a lot of assets from fonts, and art, and all the latest stuff, and there's so many assets out there. There's this idea of what we call content velocity, where there's ten times more the number of pieces of content that we have to create today than we did maybe five, seven years ago, because of all the channels and all the social and everything. It's just this proliferation of more and more channels and stuff. And so, as a creative team, we have to create a ton more stuff. And so, certainly early-on in my career using technology in the right way to scale your team was, "All right, how much time do we spend wasting time running around trying to find the right font, or running around trying to find the latest version, make sure we got version control issues?" Or, "How are we saving things to the server so that we are using the right naming convention, so it's not screwed up and we're wasting time searching and searching and searching for old files?" So, I would say the next step after you've figured out you and your team, is to make sure that your technology is in place. Make sure that you can handle content velocity. And there's a lot of ways to do that. Today, we have digital asset management software, we have dams, and you could set something up where all your assets are there, and it controls version issues, you don't have to search for art, you don't have to search for anything. It's all there and easy to find. There's also ways that Adobe — and I'm not saying this because I worked for Adobe, this happened before I started working there — where they've organized everything in the Cloud, where all the fonts are synced, you can sync up with your team through all of your libraries, you can make sure everyone's on the same page. You can really share all of that stuff and it really helps with what I call "computational design" — I don't call it that, everyone calls it computational design. And computational design is moving away from just doing one-off things, where I go out and I do a print ad, and I have to create all of these banner ads in a million different sizes, and the websites, and landing pages, and emails. Instead, you have all of these tools, whether you're using Adobe software, or you're using whatever asset management you have. But it's finding ways to build a machine, so that you have all the parts and pieces there for you, and then you don't have to waste time chasing stuff around. And it's also the way you build it. Think through the way your team builds stuff. Maybe you just need to build core art pieces, or content chunks like headlines and chunks of body copy, or little video snippets, and create all of these chunks, and those chunks are created by the team. And then at scale, the rest of the marketers or whoever can use all those chunks and mash them up in different ways for different personalized experiences. Or, if you're using software that actually sends out thousands of emails that are personalized, you have just built the core chunks, and then everyone else on the team can use them however they need to. So, finding ways for content velocity and computational design, and how it fits in with your world is really, really important, so that you can scale your team without just burning and spending time just building all the wrong things or redoing stuff all the time.

Thank you for listening. That was tips and tricks on how to scale you, and your team, internally. So, we're going to do one more session on scaling. I know the first was external scaling, and then this time I talked about internal scale. And next episode, I'm actually going to bring in a B2B expert, AJ Herrera, who's the VP of brand and advertising at VMware. And he's got some great advice on how he scales his team. So, the next session, episode seven, we're going to bring someone in, AJ Herrera, and I just want you to listen in on our conversation, and we're gonna talk about how you scale and then how you manage all this stuff. 'Cause me just talking all the time is just philosophy, right? It's just theory. But I want to talk more practical magic of how you put it into action. And, in fact, that's I think the new program that we're going to be going for in the future here, with Real Creative Leadership where, there are models for podcasts and whatnot out there where it's like, "We're just interviewing people all the time", or there's just, "I'm going to tell you information." I want to blend the both of those. So we'll pick a topic like scaling your team. We're going to talk about it, the basic steps, tips, and tricks. And then the next episode will be me bringing in an outside creative director, or outside creative leader, or someone at a different company. And then we'll talk about it so we have practical application. So if you're interested and you're a creative leader, and you have a specific topic, please reach out to me, and let's figure out an episode where we can talk about that thing, and I'd love to have you on the show.

Alright, and now last of all, I do want to give a big shoutout to Stoke. Stoke is the team that has been helping me create this whole Real Creative Leadership podcast and webinar. So, they help with both the live webinar production, and then also the production of the podcast. And I don't know how it is with you, but for me, on my own, if I had to do this on my own, I would be slow and slow-going, and you'd probably see one episode every quarter. So they have really, really helped speed this up — actually scale myself — in order to make this awesome series. So a huge, huge shoutout to them. They are awesome, not just great people, but great to work with, and very talented. So I want to give them a shoutout. So whether you need help scaling your team, with writing short or journalistic long form, or good design, or web development, or video, whatever it is, please reach out to Stoke. They're a full-service content creation agency in Silicone Slopes, and they're just great people to work with. So, please reach out, and at least have an intro chat and see what they have to offer, because I'm just super grateful for them helping me out all the time.

Alright, next, again, how do you connect? If you want more information, you can visit, and watch the latest episodes. You can also visit my personal website,, and you can sign up for my newsletter, and I'll give you updates on books and articles that I write, or when new episodes come out. That's just kind of a good reminder. I don't really spam much of anything. In fact, like I said before, if it was left up to me, I'm pretty tardy on sending out emails, so it's not like you're gonna get spammed a lot. And then also, here's the web URL for The Stoke Group if you want to reach out to them. But those are ways that you can get in touch with us, and we'd love to hear from you.

So that's it for Episode Six. Thank you so much for listening and I hope you have a great week, and we'll see you next time.