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Being Creative in a Pressure Cooker

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by Worldchanging Austin local blogger, William Wurtz:

Today, the organizations most of us work in are coming more and more to resemble pressure cookers. We all feel it. More demands to produce better results faster, more people in a team environment to whom one has responsibilities, more meetings … and, oh, by the way, if we want to be in business a few years from now, everybody needs to be much more creative to come up with the innovative products, services and process improvements that will enable us to survive in today’s ruthless marketplace.

Unfortunately, creativity doesn’t flourish under high pressure and cannot be summoned under the crack of a whip, according to Harvard professor Theresa Amabile. She also happens to be one of the world’s leading researchers on creativity in the workplace. Working with colleagues from the Harvard Business School and Yale School of Management, Amabile conducted a study recently about the effect of time pressures on creativity, involving nearly two hundred employees from seven different American companies representing chemical, high tech, and consumer products sectors.

The employees participating in the study were all highly-educated knowledge workers; 85 percent were college graduates, and many of these had additional graduate-level training. To be included in the study, the study participants also had to currently be on a project team identified by their company’s senior management as one where creativity was both possible and desirable. Clearly, if any group of employees can be expected to exhibit creativity, it is these kinds of workers.

Amabile’s study team e-mailed each participant a brief daily questionnaire for over six months (or the end of the project team’s life, whichever came first). The questionnaire included Likert, or numerical-scale, items about the tasks and the organizational environment the participant was dealing with. Two key questions asked each participant to rate the amount of both (1) time pressure and (2) creativity experienced on a particular day.

About 75 percent of the questionnaires were returned completed, an excellent, even astonishing, rate of return for a research project of this type. This rate of return translates into over nine thousand completed questionnaires.

In addition to this quantitative information, each participant was also asked to provide “qualitative information” by briefly describing one event that stood out from the rest of the day’s events. The event could be anything at all related to the project or the team or the work. Creativity was not mentioned, so as not to bias the responses. The researchers coded each narrative response so that a creative thinking measure could be derived from the data. Responses that were related to creative thinking -- whether directly (such as mentioning “brainstorming”) or indirectly (such as an event that resulted in a significant flash of insight) – were counted as being creative. Those items not related to creativity were coded under other categories.

After reviewing all of the information, the researchers concluded that, in general, time pressure was detrimental to creative work. So, to begin with, you can toss aside the delusion that you do your best (creative) work under pressure. You don’t. But don’t be too hard on yourself: this is a common misperception.

But the researchers identified other factors that complicate this simple picture. One key factor, where time pressure could play a less detrimental role, was the “meaningfulness of the time urgency.” This “meaningfulness” is indicated by two features. First, the management of a company must be able to convincingly explain how a particular urgent project will make a significant difference to the company’s future. Either it makes sense to most people that the company’s future prosperity or even its survival hinge on the outcome of this project, or it doesn’t. This sort of explanation is difficult to manipulate.

Second, given this real urgency, management is obligated to temporarily provide a work environment where the team members are shielded from the normal distractions of organizational life (e.g., reports and routine meetings) and other work assignments. Not only does this environment establish conditions where creativity is more likely, the very act of establishing this environment validates that management is sincere and serious about the nature of the opportunity (or threat) confronting the company.

Amabile uses the data and travel metaphors to develop a matrix of the relationship of time pressure to creativity.

In the upper left corner of the matrix, the amount of time pressure is low, but the expectations for creativity work are high. Thus, workers feel like they are on an expedition where they have the luxury of generating and exploring new ideas.

In the lower left corner, time pressures and creative expectations are both low. As a result, little creative output is anticipated from an organization with this profile. The workplace feel here is as if one’s work is on autopilot.

The quadrant in the upper right corner is the one that was described earlier where management has identified a crucial project and provided the workers with the time to focus mostly on this one issue. In this instance, people feel that they are on a mission.

My hypothesis is that most of the people reading this article will identify with the lower right column. Here, the time pressures are high, but the expectations for creativity are low. Amabile aptly terms this the “treadmill.”

The difficulty for many organizations and for many leaders and employees is that they are caught between the demands of a fading production-oriented industrial culture and the emerging realities of the new Creative Knowledge Economy with the constant need for creativity-led innovation. The industrial culture demands constant busyness (or the appearance of busyness) to get the last ounce of productivity out of everyone.

The Creative Knowledge Economy demands the production of new applied knowledge in the form of innovation. This can only come from creativity. It bears repeating that, unlike productivity, creativity cannot be ordered by management. Creativity can only be made more likely to happen by management through developing an organizational environment where it is OK to think and to explore new ideas. Truly creative thinking is very hard work. But it is different from the exhausting, harrowing, fragmented work many of us experience in being pulled in several different directions at once.

Our goal must be to help people understand the new realities of the emerging Creative Knowledge Economy, and to encourage them to create the organizational mechanisms where people can find the time to think.

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