6 Misconceptions about Creativity

Does money stimulate the flow of ideas? Does deadline pressure compel people to come up with brilliant insights? A Harvard Business School professor takes on what we think we know about creativity in the workplace:

Teresa Amabile is quite simply a creativity expert. After all, she's explored business innovation for nearly 30 years, looking into how we can nurture the creative process. And as head of the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School, she is the only tenured professor at a high-ranked business school to dedicate her whole research program to the exploration of creativity.

Eight years ago, she undertook a groundbreaking study, gathering nearly 12,000 daily journal entries from 238 people who wrote about their work and environment as they completed creative projects in seven companies in the consumer products, high-tech and chemical industries. While her team of PhDs, graduate students and managers are still examining the results, the study has already yielded some surprising insights. In an interview with Fast Company, she reveals what it has to say about six common beliefs about creativity (they're not true!):

1) Some people are naturally creative; most are not. According to Amabile, the research clearly illustrates that we can all be creative to some degree. Creativity hinges on a number of factors: experience (including knowledge and technical know-how), skills, talent, a knack for novel thinking, and the perseverance to persist through uninspired periods. Particularly important is self-motivation, which stems from engagement with your work. Most of us have not tapped into our creative potential, says Amabile, because we work in environments that often stifle intrinsic motivation.

2) Money spurs creativity. When Amabile asked people how motivated they were by rewards, most responded that pay wasn't a factor in their day-to-day creative thinking. While everyone needs to feel that they are compensated fairly, bonuses and pay-for-performance plans can actually be detrimental to creativity. People can start to think that their every action has a bearing on pay, and as a result, they can become afraid to take risks. Amabile's research shows that people place more value on a work environment that fosters, values and acknowledges creativity. When we're passionate about what we do and feel challenged by it, we can come up with our brightest ideas.

3) Deadline pressure stimulates creativity. While people commonly believe that they can generate the best ideas under time pressure, Amabile's study shows that deadlines actually put a damper on creativity. Not only did people's ability to generate good ideas hit bottom while facing a deadline, but their creativity also declined during the following two days. A limited time frame did not allow them to absorb the problem and think of new ideas. According to Amabile, to be creative while beating the clock, people must work 1) without distractions, 2) with an understanding of the project's urgency and 3) with the belief that everyone else is dedicated to it.

4) Fear compels innovative thinking. Many people think that fear and sadness can encourage original thinking. In fact, some psychological writings imply that depression is more likely among writers and artists. However, the study suggests the opposite. Joy and love are positively correlated with creativity, while anger, fear and anxiety are negatively correlated with it, says Amabile. "One day's happiness often predicts the next day's creativity," Amabile tells Fast Company.

5) Competition is more effective than collaboration. Contrary to popular opinion (particularly in the finance and high-tech industries) that internal competition spurs creativity, Amabile's study found that idea generation is actually hampered when team members compete rather than collaborate. This is because idea sharing can come to a halt when people in the same work group vie for recognition. The teams that freely exchange and discuss ideas are the most creative.

6) Streamlining encourages idea generation. While companies that are forced to restructure and downsize would like to believe that streamlining can stimulate creativity, this is far from the truth. In fact, the study suggests that the detrimental effects of downsizing are even more substantial than anticipated. Amabile and her team examined a 6,000-person division in an electronics company during an 18-month downsizing that reduced their ranks by 25%. They found that anticipation of the downsizing caused workers to distance themselves from their work. What's more, all stimulants to creativity in the workplace took big hits and remained low for five months afterwards. This indicates that leaders have to quickly address the things that downsizing can destroy--including communication, collaboration, and worker's sense of freedom and autonomy. By doing so, they can encourage people to feel passionate about their work and thus become more creative, even during difficult times.


The 6 Myths Of Creativity

Bill Breen

Fast Company, December 2004


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