Time Pressures And Creativity
Read in 5 min. A question that often comes up in conversations about creativity in business is: do time pressures help or hurt the creative process?
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A 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 self-perceived creativity.
The 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.
Though 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.
Here are 5 ways business leaders can foster such an environment:
1. 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' creativity. It's 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 their thinking.
2. 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 project's success.
3. 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 pressures.
4. 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.
5. Celebrate milestones. A major 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.
While 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 projects.
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