Study: People Aren’t Creative Under Pressure

Paul Sloane, in his excellent new book, The Leader's Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills (July 2003, Kogan Page Ltd.), cites a 2002 study done by Harvard Business School on the relationship between creativity and pressure, , which I found to be rather interesting -- but not necessarily very surprising:

“It is commonly assumed that the best way to help people be creative is to put them under pressure. It is thought that if they have a deadline to generate some ideas, then that will help the process. But research shows that this is not the case. In a study of 177 employees by staff from Harvard Business School (Amabile, Hadley and Kramer, 2002: 52), it was found that creativity decreased under every time pressure. Most people under extreme time pressure felt as though they or on a treadmill and were unlikely to be creative. It was found that people could be creative under time pressure, but only if the leader could inspire them to feel that they were ‘on a mission.’”

The study goes on to say that teams achieved the best results when people had realistic goals and the time to achieve them. In his book, Sloane recommends that organizations design work so that people can concentrate on a single work activity for large part of the day, rather than have them move between a large number of urgent tasks. He cites 3M, which has had a policy of allowing staff to spend 15% of their time each week and exploring interesting ideas outside of their area of assigned work.

By Chuck Frey