#588 Innovative Leader
Volume 12, Number 11
Pressures and Creativity
Govendo is president of The Innovative Edge™ Inc., in
Massachusetts, helping client organizations tackle tough
challenges through creative problem-solving (www.innov-edge.com).
question that often comes up in conversations about creativity in
business is: do time pressures help or hurt the creative process?
There are convincing arguments to support either point of
view on this subject. Some would say that creativity is an “organic” process
that takes time to unfold in the human mind, so that imposing a
time limit for coming up with new thinking or discovering a
breakthrough idea is counterproductive.
Others point out that time pressures enhance creativity by
providing a much-needed sense of urgency in a process that
otherwise tends to meander and stray from the original target.
Who is right?
study on this subject was reported in the August 2002 Harvard
Business Review by Amabile, Hadley and Kramer. In it, the authors closely followed – via narrative e-mail
diaries and numerical-scale response items – the daily
activities and subjective reactions of 177 professional employees
from seven companies in the chemical, high tech and consumer
products industries. Each person in the study belonged to a project team and was
actively engaged in an initiative in which creative thinking was
considered a critical factor for success.
Because the sample was relatively large, and the response
rate surprisingly high (75%) over a period of more than six
months, employees’ responses were considered to be fairly
accurate indicators of how time pressures affected their
results indicate, that in most circumstances, the more time
pressure workers experienced, the less creative both they and the
authors judged them to be. This
was especially true in situations described as “being on a
treadmill;” for example, when subjects felt distracted by
non-task related issues, were subject to sudden changes in
direction, or lacked conviction that their work was important.
On the other hand, there was a set of conditions in which
creativity did flourish, even under extreme time pressures:
1) when there was a clear and agreed-upon purpose to their
work; i.e., a sense of mission, and 2) they could remain focused on the task for significant periods
of time without interruption. The keys to maintaining one’s
creative edge under time pressure, therefore, are a sense of
purpose and the ability to direct all of one’s energy to the
task at hand.
hardly revelations, these findings are nonetheless important.
In today’s business environment, where cycle times are
shorter, competition fiercer, and customer expectations higher
than ever, the pressure to complete complex tasks quickly has
become the norm. For
better or worse, working under the gun is a fact of life for most
employees, especially in leaner companies where more work is being
done by fewer people. If
maintaining a competitive edge through innovation is a priority,
companies must somehow provide working conditions that enable
employees at all levels to maximize their creative potential, even
when pressed for time.
are 5 ways business leaders can foster such an environment:
Clearly articulate the project team’s tasks.
Lack of focus and continually changing objectives were
cited by the authors as major detractors from their subjects’
important to understand that creativity – with all its lateral
and approximate thinking – is not necessarily neat or
predictable. A clear
purpose with a sound rationale serves as a touchstone, which in
turn encourages people to be more experimental and speculative in
Decide on goals that are a “stretch,” but not so lofty
or far-reaching that they overwhelm.
People enjoy a challenge, and work optimally when given the
opportunity to apply themselves to new and innovative projects.
But creativity suffers under persistent anxiety, fear of
failure or sheer exhaustion.
Finding the appropriate balance is critical to the
Match people to their passions.
In addition to selecting people for a project on the basis
of their skills, consider also what they love to do, or what they
feel is vital work. This helps to engender that sense of “mission” the
authors identified as key to working creatively under time
Have important project team sessions conducted by a
non-team member with good facilitation skills.
Many of the conditions noted in the study as undermining
creativity, such as lack of focus, are also present in poorly-led
meetings. And of
course, meetings that waste time create additional time pressures.
Choose a skilled facilitator who has no direct stake in the
project (i.e., he/she can concentrate primarily on the process).
This will result in shorter, more productive meetings, as well as
minimizing negative judgments to new ideas.
project can erode workers’ creativity by its sheer duration or
complexity. Therefore, don’t wait until the end to celebrate the
team’s accomplishments. Determine
some milestones along the way and celebrate them heartily,
recognizing each individual’s contributions in reaching these
points. While this
won’t lessen the length of the project, it will go far in
keeping people’s spirits up and their creative energies flowing
toward the ultimate objective.
time pressures upon employees are inevitable in most companies for
the foreseeable future, there are steps leaders can take to
maximize people’s creativity and effectiveness.
Using the above suggestions as guidelines, a little extra
planning will go a long way toward increasing employee
satisfaction and performance as they work on their most important