Magazine article Work & Family Life

What It Really Takes to 'Get Creative' in Our Work

Magazine article Work & Family Life

What It Really Takes to 'Get Creative' in Our Work

Article excerpt

We can all agree that creativity is a good thing. But what does it really mean in terms of our day-today routines? What kind of work environment fosters creative thinking? What are its barriers? Does the pressure of time, which so many of us have to contend with, stimulate or stifle creativity?

Harvard Business School Professor Teresa M. Amabile, PhD, a leading researcher in the study of creativity at the workplace, has been grappling with these questions for more than 35 years.

What the research shows

Dr. Amabile conducted a 10-year study that involved the examination of 12,000 daily journal entries from 238 people working on creative projects at seven companies in consumer products, high-tech and chemical industries. She didn't tell the participants she was focusing on creativity. She just asked them, in a daily email, about that day's work and work environment.

Her team coded the responses for creativity by looking specifically for moments when workers struggled with a problem or came up with a new idea.

"We wanted to crawl inside people's heads and understand the features of their work environment, as well as the experiences and thought processes that lead to creative breakthrough," Dr. Amabile said.

Her study has already changed some of the conventional wisdom about creativity in the workplace. Here are some of the findings:

o The idea that some people are "creative types" while most of us are not is just plain wrong. Everyone is capable of producing novel, useful ideas. Anyone with normal intelligence can do some degree of creative work.

Creativity depends on experience (knowledge plus technical skills), talent, an ability to think in new ways and the capacity to push through uncreative dry spells. Intrinsic motivation is critical. To put that another way, people who are turned on by their own work tend to work more creatively.

o Creativity requires a period of incubation. People need time to engage deeply. They need to "soak in" a problem and let ideas "bubble up." Time pressures can stifle this process, but the main obstacle is distraction, not deadlines.

People can be creative when they're under the gun-if they can be protected from distractions and truly focus on their work. It also helps to understand the reason for the urgency-other than the fact that somebody somewhere needs the job done immediately. …

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