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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.

Summary by Terry Kuhn
Master of Accountancy Program
University of South Florida, Summer 2003

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As we begin to discuss systems, both good and bad, we discover that the system by design is sometimes what flaws the system itself. So holds true when it comes to creativity in the workplace. Research by Teresa M. Amabile of Harvard University shows that many times the design of the system unintentionally thwarts the creative efforts of the users. (p.77)

The purpose of this article is to discuss a win-win situation in the business world when it comes to creativity in the workplace. Goals of the business can be reached and at the same time, not stand in the way of the creative juices that seem to flow from within the creative minds of their employees.

What is Business Creativity?

While many associate creativity with the arts, there is a place in the business world for creativity. According to Amabile, “Creativity within each of us is a function of three components: expertise, creative-thinking skills, and motivation.” (p.78)

Creativity

Expertise = knowledge - technical, procedural, and intellectual.

Creative thinking skills = how people approach problems.

Motivation = the desire or driver for what we will actually do, e.g., to solve a problem.

While the first two components are important, the basis of the article focuses on two key elements relating to motivation:

1. How it impacts creativity

2. How we as managers influence creativity through motivation

There are two types of motivation - extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic factors are external factors, like money as a reward or threats of being fired, as a way for managers to motivate workers. Managers surprisingly enough think these are the best ways to motivate their employees. While these are the most common, they are also the least successful tools.

Intrinsic motivation is the key ingredient to help spark creativity. Intrinsic factors come from inside a person.

These are factors like passion and self-interest. “When people are intrinsically motivated, they engage in their work for the challenge and enjoyment of it. The work itself is motivating.” (p.79)

Managing Creativity

Managers can influence all three components of creativity but it is too hard and takes too long to try and spark expertise and creative thinking skills. Pushing the right buttons that affect intrinsic motivation is the most effective way to increase results. So how do managers do it? There are six managing practices to encourage motivation. As indicated in the table below, these techniques are not always done correctly.

Categories What should happen What usually happens
Challenge Matching people with right assignment Don’t gather info. 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 others 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/info. sharing Money – “bribes”
No recognition/reward in place; Political sabotage

Is it too late to change?

For companies that have been around for years, it is not too late to change the culture that cultivates saying no to new ideas. A study of Proctor & Gamble showed that product innovation had declined. However, the company established a new team of people and put them to the test, instilling in them all of the ideas mentioned in the article. Since the team was assembled, 11 new projects were unveiled.

It would appear that businesses just starting out should look closely at the systems they put in place. Without creativity, businesses lose a very powerful weapon to their competition – new ideas. Businesses that kill creativity also foster resentment and disappointment in the employees that work under these conditions. And for those businesses that do practice creativity, always be reminded that creativity killers could be anywhere, or surface anytime. To thrive, businesses must continuously support and foster creativity.

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