Creativity Under the Gun


October 2002

Creativity Under the Gun


When we place too much time pressure on projects, innovative ideas are not always developed, which contradicts the assumptions of some executives. In fact, some executives use time pressure as a management technique to spur their employees (and even themselves) onto great leaps of insight. But when creativity is under the gun, it’s usually lost. The reality is that employees actually think less creatively in these situations.

In “Creativity Under the Gun” in the August 2002 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Teresa M. Amabile, Constance N. Hadley, and Steven J. Kramer, share their research on how time pressure affects creativity at work. The authors collected diaries that participants kept during extreme project deadlines. The participants completed a daily diary form online where they rated several aspects of their work and work environment, including how much time pressure they felt. In a separate section of the form, they also described something that stood out in their minds about the day. The authors wanted to determine how deeply people experience time pressure day to day as they work on projects that require high levels of inventiveness, while also measuring their ability to think creatively under pressure.

The authors found that most participants felt overworked and burned out. On an average day, the diaries showed that some participants were feeling moderate levels of time pressure, where many other participants were experiencing extremely high levels of time pressure. The diaries showed that time pressure seemed to increase as deadlines approached. Also, time pressure seemed to vary by day of the week, starting at a low level on Monday, increasing to a peak on Thursday, and then decreasing on Friday. The low levels on Monday and Friday may occur because management has lower expectations on those days or that most people are in a weekend mindset. For those participants who travel for work, the diaries showed that they experienced more high levels of time pressure when they were on the road than when they were in the office. Some of the participants did feel challenged as time pressure increased and seemed to be more energized, where other participants experienced deep frustration.

The authors determined that as people feel more time pressure, they are less likely to be creative. The participants, however, seemed to be largely unaware of this fact. Most thought they became more creative as time pressure increased. However, their diaries showed that actually they experienced less and less creative thinking as time pressure increased, with creativity being at its worst when time pressure was highest. The authors also discovered that there seems to be a “pressure hangover” that could last a couple of days because people are exhausted or they are experiencing a cognitive overload.

Psychologists might be able to explain why time pressure has a dampening effect on creative thinking. They believe that creativity results from a large number of associations being formed in the mind, followed by choosing those associations that may be particularly interesting and useful either alone or combined. Experiments and observations of creative activities support this theory of the creative process. The authors’ research suggests that creative thinking depends on having sufficient time to form associations and evaluate them.

The authors wanted to determine why creating ingenious solutions under time pressure doesn’t happen more often. When looking through the diaries, the creative time-pressured days seemed to happen under abnormal working conditions. When the participants spent at least a portion of their day uninterrupted on the project, they had time to focus on the goal. Others seemed to find their creative days when they were more isolated, working in a group of one or two rather than a large group. How people spend their days seems to make a difference. Those who exhibit creativity are more oriented in exploring and generating new ideas.

The authors’ research focused on knowledge workers, those who we expect to have high levels of creativity. The authors determined that creativity is possible under any level of pressure but seems to happen only when an employee can be deeply immersed in their project. To maintain creativity, we must avoid placing extreme time pressure on our employees whenever possible, especially when looking for high levels of learning, exploration, idea generation, and experimentation with new concepts. We can avoid placing undue time pressure by carefully planning and setting realistic goals. When situations arise where time pressure is unavoidable, try to keep your employees free from distractions, interruptions, and unrelated demands, so they can concentrate on being creative. Helping your employees understand the meaning of the project timeframes encourages them to accept the project’s importance and urgency. CIDMIconNewsletter