by V. S. Ravi Elangkoh

“How to kill creativity? Keep doing what you’re doing. Or, if you want to spark innovation, rethink how you motivate, reward and assign work to people.”

~ Theresa Amabile

 

In this final instalment of our six-part series, we discuss the 6th myth of creativity unveiled by Professor Theresa Amabile – but before that, here is a quick look at all six of the myths below:

[Editorial note: You may wish to click on each of the first five myths to re-read the past instalments.]

Myth #1:  Creativity Comes From Creative Types

Myth #2:  Money is a Creativity Motivator

Myth #3:  Time Pressure Fuels/Drives Creativity

Myth #4:  Fear Forces Breakthroughs

Myth #5:  Competition Beats Collaboration

Myth #6:  A Streamlined Organization is a Creative Organization

Myth #6: A Streamlined Organization is a Creative Organization

Scissors - cutting cost

Streamlining, sometimes known as downsizing, is usually a euphemism for staff retrenchment. Many organizations conveniently use retrenchment as a quick and easy way out to do cost-cutting. If not wisely or sensitively implemented, the move will backfire and yield disastrous results in the longer term. No doubt some money might be saved during the short term but staff morale suffers, and one of the outcomes of low staff morale is diminished creativity.

Amabile believes that anyone who claims streamlining can enhance creativity is merely a public-relations mouthpiece. She cites the example of a letter from a major US software company to its shareholders in 1994, which stated that, “A downsizing such as this one is always difficult for employees, but out of tough times can come strength, creativity, and teamwork.”1

Really?

In Amabile’s study of a 6,000-person division in a global electronics firm throughout their 18-month-long 25% downsizing exercise, she found that every single stimulant of creativity at the workplace dropped significantly. Fear of the unknown arising from the anticipation of the downsizing had led employees to disengage from their work! Even five months after the downsizing exercising, the level of creativity was still significantly low.

So what should leaders do? Since we cannot eliminate downsizing, Amabile recommends that we focus on strengthening the human aspects that tend to be most badly affected, e.g. communication, collaboration, sense of freedom, autonomy. Leaders must quickly work hard and smart to stabilize the work environment by addressing those aspects, so that ideas can still flourish despite the less-than-favourable conditions.

Managing Creativity

After debunking the six myths of creativity that have been exposed by Amabile, is there any overall framework for managing creativity?

The answer is “yes”; Terry Kuhn (University of South Florida)2 has summarized Amabile’s recommendations for managing creativity3, as follows:

Trophy with star

Categories What should happen What usually happens
Challenge Matching people with right assignment Don’t gather information to make a connection
Freedom Give people autonomy to the means; not choose the ends Keep changing the goal; Give freedom in name only (short leash)
Resources Time; money; space; Balance fit between resources/people Fake deadlines; impossible deadlines; too little resources
Work-group features Create diverse, supportive teams – members must share excitement; willingness to help and recognize the other’s talent Select homogenous teams; quicker results but nothing special from results
Supervisory encouragement Recognition of work; “cheering section”; praise; not extrinsic rewards Failure to recognize efforts; greet efforts with skepticism
Organizational support Leader support through value emphasis; mandating collaboration/ information sharing Money – “bribes”; No recognition/reward in place; Political sabotage

 

By managing creativity at the workplace, we can continue fanning the flame of creativity to keep it alive. That way, creativity will still burn deep within us and ignite breakthroughs even in the toughest of times!

References

1. http://www.fastcompany.com/51559/6-myths-creativity

2. http://maaw.info/ArticleSummaries/ArtSumAmabile.htm

3. Amabile, T. M. 1998. How to kill creativity: Keep doing what you’re doing. Or, if you want to spark innovation, rethink how you motivate, reward, and assign work to people. Harvard Business Review (September-October): 77- 87

[Image 1 courtesy of Patpitchaya; Image 2 courtesy of Pixtawan]