This week is Comic-Con, the annual geek fest in San Diego and a gathering of all things related to the comic book industry. In honour of Stan Lee, the revered Marvel Comics editor writer, this post looks at how his management style revolutionised the creative process at Marvel and how we can use the same method to manage our own teams more efficiently.
Stanley Lieber (later known as Stan Lee) joined the Martin Goodman’s publishing company as an assistant in 1939. By the early 1960s the company now known as Marvel Comics had become immensely popular and Stan Lee had worked his way up to the position of editor writer. As Lee became pressured to deliver several titles a month, he created the Marvel Method to streamline the production process.
Instead of using the traditional technique where the writer scripts the entire plot and dialogue of each story to be drawn by the writers, Stan Lee would give a loose outline of the story and the artist would then complete each scene. Once the pencilled pages were completed and approved the artist would return the pages to Lee to add dialog, captions and effects to the illustrations. While unconventional, Stan and his team not only found that working this way was extremely conducive to the creative process, it also increased productivity allowing the comic to keep up with the demand for new stories while maintaining a lean team of writers and artists.
As business owners and managers, we can learn a lot from Stan Lee & the Marvel Method. While it’s often difficult to let go of control when managing our teams, assuming that we can do everything better than everyone else is counterproductive. It also takes away the opportunity for others to learn and grow.
Here are 7 lessons on collaboration we can learn from Stan Lee:
1) Hire wisely – choose team members who compliment, not replicate existing skill sets and hire on drive and personality. Someone less experienced who is passionate about doing an exceptional job will probably deliver better results than someone more experienced with less enthusiasm.
“When you work with people whom you respect and whom you like and you admire because they’re so good at what they do, it doesn’t feel like work… It’s like you’re playing.”
2) Encourage innovation – is your way the only way or the best way to do things? Continuing to do something in the same way, just because it works is a sure fire way to fail. The best most successful companies out there are innovators. They know when to change something that isn’t working anymore – they also know what must never change.
“All of my life in comics I have worked with artists, so I’ve collaborated with them. . . . I feel, when you collaborate with talented people, they inspire you. I would hope that you spark them also. And I find that working with people whom you respect, and who are as eager as you to do things that will excite an audience, that’s the best way to go.”
3) Trust and respect your people – you hired them for a reason, so don’t hold them back from reaching their full potential. If you don’t trust them to do a good job without constant supervision you may need to consider if they are the right fit for the team.
“All I had to do was give Steve a one-line description of the plot and he’d be off and running. He’d take those skeleton outlines I had given him and turn them into classic little works of art that ended up being far cooler than I had any right to expect.”
5) Give credit where credit is due – giving people the opportunity to share the glory is a great motivator and creates a vested interest in the success of the project. Stan Lee gave his team written credit for their work where this was previously unheard of in the comic book industry. They were credited on the splash page of each story, naming not just the writers, artists but also the inkers and letterers.
“Comic books is a collaborative medium. Had I not worked with artists … my stories wouldn’t have looked as good”
6) Don’t micromanage – create guidelines rather than rules and encourage your team make autonomous decisions that are in line with the vision and values of the business or project. This promotes responsible decision making and accountability rather than creating a dependence on supervision.
“In the early days, I was writing scripts for virtually all the books, and it was very hard to keep all the artists busy; poor little frail me, doing story after story. So I’d be writing a story for Kirby, and Steve Ditko would walk in and say, ‘Hey, I need some work now.’ And I’d say, ‘I can’t give it to you now, Steve, I’m finishing Kirby’s.’ But we couldn’t afford to keep Steve waiting, because time is money, so I’d have to say, ‘Look Steve, I can’t write a script for you now, but here’s the plot for the next Spider-Man. Go home and draw anything you want, as long as it’s something like this, and I’ll put the copy in later.’ So I was able to finish Jack’s story. Steve in the meantime was drawing another story…..Okay, it started out as a lazy’s man’s device…but we realized this was absolutely the best way to do a comic…..Don’t have the writer say, ‘Panel one will be a long shot of Spider-Man walking down the street.’ The artist may see it differently; maybe he feels it should be a shot of Spider-Man swinging on his web, or climbing upside-down on the ceiling or something.”
7) Allow people to fail - innovation takes risk and while it’s great to reward success, celebrate failure too – it means someone cared enough to take a chance to do something differently. Create a safe test environment for new ideas and encourage your team to learn from mistakes.
“While no one is expected to leap tall buildings in a single bound, our aspiring heroes will be tested on their courage, integrity, self-sacrifice, compassion and resourcefulness – the stuff of all true superheroes.”
Stan Lee who joined the company at its inception in 1939 as an office assistant, led the expansion of Marvel Comics from a small division of a publishing house to a large multimedia corporation.
Although Lee continues to receive credit for his brilliant storytelling and his extraordinary gift to connect with readers, he attributes his success to his ability to select and motivate artists and the process by which he led his creative teams.
How much initiative do you trust your team to take?
Photo by By Daniel Y. Go
Available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license