We can thank Harvard Business School’s Professor of Business Administration and Director of Research for some of the most extensive studies into creativity and the workplace. Teresa Amabile argues that rather than trying to ‘manage’ creativity, we should instead focus on ‘managing for’ creativity.
Her latest research, revealed in her book The Progress Principle, asked hundreds of workers to fill in diaries – resulting in over 12,000 diary entries. Amabile was able to see what mattered, what impacted employees during the course of their day. As is the way with diaries, emotions, motivations and perceptions were abundant and had a great impact on productivity.
Put simply, when employees are happy, they are more productive – which should be no great shock – but her research showed that this happiness actually fuelled creativity, not just on one day but on subsequent days – a chain reaction any office or company should get to grips with.
“As really talented people begin to lose their motivation, feel that they’re devalued at work, they’re going to walk out the door soon as they get opportunities. That’s why it’s so important to understand the Progress Principle and the power of Inner Work Life.”
Amabile says if employees feel they are making progress, they are happier. This not all down to incentives and recognition. Managers need re-educating to realise employee performance is multidimensional, not just carrot and stick.
While hidden thoughts and feelings as recorded in diaries might be considered hard for managers to judge, Amabile says employees should be encouraged to track small wins by stopping to take stock instead of ploughing on to the next challenge. This will motivate and improve the mood of even the most personally critical employee.
Creativity Under The Gun
This links to Amabile’s other findings, which explode the myth that employees can be productive and creative under pressure. Amabile argues that while time pressures may make people feel more creative, they are less likely to actually be more creative because this requires the juggling of ideas until they ‘collide in original and ultimately profitable ways.
“When creativity is under the gun, it usually gets killed.”
Her research found that “on higher-pressure days, most people are 45% less likely to think creatively than on lower-pressure days” and that urgency can work, but only when management makes it clear that urgency or deadline is legitimate and not just being used as a whip.
She maps out the ways to make creativity flourish under pressure. ‘On a mission’ high-pressure days should be filled with focus and meaningful urgency while high-pressure, low creativity days can make employees feel they are getting further behind and being pulled in different directions. Most appealing is the ‘On an expedition’ type of day, when low pressure leads to exploration and creativity: managers should see low pressure days as a bit of a gift – a time to encourage workers to play around with ideas.
By resisting this false urgency just to get things done quicker, companies can go down the AT&T Bell road – an example she uses to highlight how their philosophy of ‘big ideas take time’, which sparked innovations including the transistor, the laser beam and earned researchers seven Nobel prizes.
Creativity and the Role of the Leader
Amabile argues that managers should stop thinking of themselves as the wellsprings of ideas that employees execute – instead they should:
- Tap ideas from all ranks: Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page tracked the progress of ideas that came from them versus ideas that bubbled up through the ranks, and discovered a higher success rate in the latter category.
- Make it safe to fail: convince people they won’t be punished or humiliated if they speak up or make mistakes.
- Open up to diverse perspectives: individuals with multiple social identities (e.g. Asian and American, female and engineer) display higher levels of creativity.
- Protect creatives from bureaucracy: shield creatives and ideas from pressures to conform to the existing model.
- Know when to impose controls, and when not to: realise that the early discovery phase of creativity can be messy and unpredictable – so don’t try and impose controls on it.
- Create a filtering mechanism: run ideas past people from a variety of disciplines, and consider using business accelerators to gauge potential of ideas.