Amabile has been grappling with those questions for nearly 30 years.
Amabile, who heads the entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business
school and is the only tenured professor at a top B-school to devote her
entire research programme to the study of creativity, is one of the
country’s foremost explorers of business innovation.
Eight years ago, Amabile took her research to a daring new level. Working
with a team of PhDs, graduate students, and managers from various
companies, she collected nearly 12,000 daily journal entries from 238
people working on creative projects in seven companies in the consumer
products, high-tech, and chemical industries. She didn’t tell the study
participants that she was focusing on creativity. She simply asked them,
in a daily email, about their work and their work environment as they
experienced it that day. She then coded the emails for creativity by
looking for moments when people struggled with a problem or come up with a
“The diary study was designed to look at creativity in the wild,?she
says. “We wanted to crawl inside people’s head and understand the features
of their work environment as well as the experiences and thought processes
that lead to creative breakthroughs.?br>
Amabile and her team are still combing through the results. But this
groundbreaking study is already over-turning some long-held beliefs about
innovation in the workplace. In an interview with FAST COMPANY, she busted
six cherished myths about creativity. (If you want to quash creativity in
your organisation, just continue to embrace them). Here they are, in her
Creativity Comes From Creative Types
When I give talks to managers; I often start by asking, where in your
organisation do you most want creativity? Typically, they’ll say R & D,
marketing, and advertising. When I ask, where do you not want creativity?
Some one will inevitably answer, “accounting.?That always gets a laugh
because of the negative connotations of creative accounting. But there’s
this common perception among managers that some people are creative, and
most aren’t. That’s just not true. As a leader, you don’t want to
ghettoize creativity; you want everyone in your orgasnisation producing
novel and useful ideas, including your financial people. Over the past
couple of decades, there have been innovation in financial accounting that
are extremely profund and entirely ethical, such as activity-based
The fact is, almost all of the research in this field shows that anyone
with normal intelligence is capable of doing some degree of creative work.
Creativity depends on a number of things; experience, including knowledge
and technical skills; talent; an ability to think in new ways; and the
capacity to push through uncreative dry spells. Intrinsic motivation ?
people who are turned on by their work often work creatively ?is
especially critical. Over the past five years; organisations have paid
more attention to creativity and innovation than at any other time in my
career. But I believe most people aren’t anywhere near to realising their
creative potential, in part because they’re labouring in environments that
impede intrinsic motivation. The anecdotal evidence suggests many
companies still have a long way to go to remove the barriers to
Money is a Creativity Motivator
The experimental research that has been done on creativity suggests that
money isn’t everything. In the diary study, we asked people, “To what
extent were you motivated by rewards today??Quite often they don’t think
about pay on a day-to-day basis. And the handful of people who were
wondering about their bonuses were doing very little creative thinking.
Bonuses and pay-for-performance plans can even be problematic when people
believe that every move they make is going to affect their compensation.
In those situations, people tend to get risk averse. Of course, people
need to feel that they’re being compensated fairly. But our research shows
that people put far more value on a work environment where creativity is
supported, valued, and recognised. People want the opportunity to deeply
engage in their work and make real progress. So it’s criotical for leaders
to match people to projects not only on the basis of their experience but
also in terms of where their interests lie. People are creative when they
care about their work and they’re stretching their skills. If the
challenge is far beyond their skill level, they tend to get bored. Leaders
need to strike the right balance.
Time Pressure Fuels Creativity
In our diary study, people often thought they were most creative while
working under severe deadline pressure. But the 12,000 aggregate days that
we studied just showed the opposite: People were the least creative when
they were fighting the clock. In fact, we found a kind of pressure
hangover ?when people were working under great pressure, their creativity
went down not only on that day but the next two days as well. Time
pressure stifles creativity because people can’t deeply engage with the
Creativity requires an incubation period; people need time to soak in a
problem and let the ideas bubble up.
In fact, it’s not so much the deadline that’s the problem; it’s the
distractions that rob people of the time to make that creative break
through. People can certainly be creative when they’re under the gun, but
only when they’re able to focus on the work. They must be protected from
distractions, and they must know that the work is important and that
everyone is committed to it. In too many organisations, people don’t
understand the reason for the urgency, other than the fact that someone
somewhere needs it done today.
Fear Forces Breakthrough
There’s this widespread notion that fear and sadness somehow spur
creativity. There’s even some psychological literature suggesting that the
incidence of depression is higher in creative writers and artists ?the
depressed geniuses who are incredibly original in their thinking. But we
don’t see it in the population that we studied.
We coded all 12,000 journal entries for the degree of fear, anxiety,
sadness, anger, joy, and love that people were experiencing on a given
day. And we found that creativity is positively associated with joy and
love and negatively associated with anger, fear, and anxiety. The entries
show that people are happiest when they come up with a creative idea, but
they’re more likely to have a breakthrough if they were happy the day
before. There’s a kind of virtuous cycle. When people are excited about
their work, there’s a better chance that they’ll make a cognitive
association that incunates overnight and shows up as a creative idea the
next day. One day’s happiness often predicts that next day’s creativity.
Competition Beats Collaboration
There’s a widespread belief, particularly in the finance and high-tech
industries, that internal competition fosters innovation. In our surveys,
we found that creativity takes a hit when people in a work group compete
instead of a colloborate. The most creative teams are those that have the
confidence to share and debate ideas. But when people compete for
recognition, they stop sharing information. And that’s destructive because
nobody in an organisation has all of the information required to put all
the pieces of the puzzle together.
A Streamlined Organisation is a Creative
Maybe it’s only the public relations departments that believe downsizing
and restrucing actually foster creativity. Unfortunately, I’ve seen too
many examples of this kind of spin. One of my favourites is a 1994 letter
to shareholder from a major U.S. software company: “A downsizing such as
this one is always difficult for employees, but out of tough times can
come strength, creativity, and teamwork.?br>
Of course, the opposite is true.
Creativity suffers greatly during a downsizing. But it’s even worse than
many of us realised. We studied a 6,000 person division in the global
electronics company during the entire course of a 25% downsizing, which
took an incrediably agonising 18 months. Every single one of the
stimulants to creativity in the work environment went down significantly.
Anticipation of the downsizing was even worse than the downsizing itself ?
people’s fear of the unknown led them to basically disengage from the
work. More troubling was the fact that even five months after the
downsizing, creativity was still down significantly.
Unfortunately, downsizing will remain a fact of life, which means that
leaders need to focus on the things that get hit. Communication and
collaboration decline significantly. So too does people’s sense of freedom
and autonomy. Leaders will have to work hard and fast to stabilise the
work environment so ideas can flourish.
Taken together, these operating principles for fostering creativity in the
workplace might lead you to think that I’m advocating a soft management
style. Not true. I’m pushing for a smart management style.
My 30 years of research and these 12,000 journal entries suggest that when
people are doing work that they love and they’re allowed to deeply engage
in it ?and when the work itself is valued and recognised ?then
creativity will flourish. Even in tough times.
Source: Fast Company