by V. S. Ravi Elangkoh

“Many of us think that creativity is a nice-to-have; little do we realize that creativity is urgent and critical business!”
                                                                                                                                                   ~ V. S. Ravi Elangkoh

Deadline signWe continue our series by discussing the 3rd myth of creativity, which was first propounded by Professor Theresa Amabile: “Time Pressure Fuels/Drives Creativity.”

[Editorial note: You may be interested to refer to Part 1 – Myth #1: Creativity Comes from Creative Types and Part 2 – Myth #2: Money is a Creativity Motivator.]

Myth #3: Time Pressure Fuels/Drives Creativity

Some people attest to how tight deadlines have unleashed the hidden creativity they did not realize they had. Think about the times when you and your colleagues succeeded in crafting a compelling proposal to a prospective client at short notice. Or, recall the times when you ‘miraculously’ rose to the occasion to face a pressing challenge creatively.

Does this mean that time pressure is beneficial in drawing out your inner creativity? It depends.

To a certain extent, time pressure can spur you to perform your best in the shortest time possible. However, if the deadline is too tight, then no worthy creative output would arise out of it. Time pressure impairs creativity because it cuts down your level of engagement and hampers intrinsic motivation, a characteristic that led Amabile to label time pressure a “non-synergistic motivator”.

For creativity to fully blossom, you must have enough time to deeply engage your mind at the various levels of cognition required to mine the limitless resources of creativity within you. If the time given to complete a project is too short, you and your team would not have the opportunity to sow and cultivate rich ideas. Our brains need to be immersed in a challenge long enough for valuable ideas to start flowing out.

Creativity under the gun

From her 1998 landmark study, Amabile found that people often thought they were most creative when working under intense deadline pressure – a scenario she named “creativity under the gun”. But the 12,000 aggregate days chalked up by the participants, which Amabile and her research team analyzed in her study, indicated that the reverse was true: People were the least creative when trying to beat the clock!

Amabile’s team also discovered some form of time-pressure “hangover” – when people were working under great pressure, their creativity plummeted not just that very day but the following two days as well.

Deadly distractions

Sometimes it is more than just a tight deadline that is the problem. It is the distractions that deprive people of the time needed to breach their creative threshold. Leaders should therefore beware of inadvertently allowing potential distractions that cause employees to lose their focus. The lack of focus jeopardizes creativity and prevents the much-needed breakthrough the organization needs.

What are among the distractions that can cripple creativity? One of the greatest distractions faced by employees is worrying about whether they have the wholehearted commitment of the management.

So, leaders – openly announce your unwavering support for your people in developing their creativity. Spell out clearly the rules of engagement, and refrain from penalizing employees if they have tried their best but still make so-called errors in the creativity process.

Urgent but not pressurizing

Although time pressure may be counterproductive to creativity, it does not mean that creativity should be deliberately made a slow process or relegated to a lower priority. Many of us think that creativity is a nice-to-have, something to be developed only if we have the time; little do we realize that creativity is urgent and critical business! Creativity is a priority, which is crucial in our competitive and unpredictable environment. How many organizations today have regretted not getting their creative breakthroughs yesterday!

Concluding remarks

To summarize, give creativity enough space and time to flourish. Let us take a cue from nature – human beings require nine months of gestation before they can be born. Likewise, creativity can only be birthed with the right amount of nurturing within the right timeframe. Regardless of how smart a mother or child is, it still takes nine months – give or take, a few days or weeks – for an infant to be ready to enter a new phase of life.

[Image courtesy of Stuart Miles]

To be continued in Part 4