Want Creative Workers? Loosen the Reins, Boss

Philip Glass, the contemporary composer, works on his new compositions only between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. That’s the time, he says, when his creative ideas come to him. When filmmaker George Lucas needs to write or edit a script, he sequesters himself in a small cottage behind his house where he gets no calls or visitors.

A lesson in managing creativity can be found in the work discipline of such inventive geniuses: A protected bubble in time and space fosters the imaginative spirit.

That notion challenges some prevailing wisdom–particularly the assumption that upping the pressure on workers will squeeze more innovative thinking out of them. Many managers assume that just calling people into a high-demand brainstorming session will get everyone’s best ideas out on the table.

That is dead wrong, according to new research on the creative process. In a knowledge economy, where competitive advantage comes from leveraging the most innovative ideas and executing them well, leaders at every level would do well to reflect on these findings.

In a study led by Teresa Amabile, a director of research at the Harvard Business School, researchers asked more than 1,000 knowledge workers–members of research-and-development, marketing and information-technology teams–to keep daily diaries. This data trove revealed a disconnect between how managers think they can best support creative efforts, and how those who are actually making the efforts assess what helps them most.

Small Wins Count

When the researchers asked managers to name the most effective ways they could encourage creativity, the most frequent response was praising people for good work. When they asked the workers themselves, the No. 1 carrot turned out to be providing ongoing managerial support of their daily progress. Only 5 percent of managers got this right. Daily progress toward a large goal, even small wins, primes positive moods and catalyzes creativity, the Harvard study found.

Members of creative project teams also described the most common ways managers unwittingly undermine creative work. These ranged from dismissing an idea out of hand to ignoring suggestions to torpedoing an employee’s creative project, for instance through an abrupt reassignment or a cavalier change of mind. The researchers advised managers to set clear goals and then let people accomplish them in their own ways.

Aha Moment

The Harvard researchers also recommended that supervisors protect workers’ time and resources so they can have periods of sustained focus on their projects. This advice–to manage staff time well–is supported by new brain research that reveals what happens at the moment of Aha! Joy Bhattacharya at the University of London has found that in the moments just before a creative insight, the mind is typically relaxed and open to new ideas, as indicated by an alpha brain wave.

As the Aha! approaches, there’s an abrupt shift marked by high gamma-wave activity. This indicates that far-flung neural circuits are connecting in a new network. A third of a second after the peak of this activity, a novel idea floats into the mind.

This finding indicates that creative insights can’t be concocted on demand; they need to ripen. The first step in the creative process typically involves immersion in the problem and current thinking, and then gathering any information that might be relevant. But in the next stage, intense effort should give way to letting what is known as the “cognitive unconscious” work on the problem by making novel connections.

Constant distractions interrupt the mental space where creative insights simmer. That’s why so many Aha! moments come in the relaxed space of downtime — when we’re doing something other than tensing to be creative.

Lessons From Google

Anyone whose work involves strategic thinking can learn something from the findings. The usual method for devising a competitive strategy is to come up with an idea and then analyze its value. The trouble is, no one tells you how to come up with that idea in the first place.

Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who created the innovative search formula that became the basis of Google Inc. (GOOG), know something about that process. They have instituted Google’s famous once-a-week day for employees to work exclusively on their pet creative projects. Long before Google existed, 3M set aside 15 percent of employee time for the same thing.

Another trendsetter was Xerox PARC, the legendary Silicon Valley research center known for insulating its creative staff from competitive pressures and giving them time to reflect, explore and collaborate. Xerox PARC is the birthplace of a plethora of computer-age basics including laser printing and the graphical user interface that gave us windows and icons.

In a day when the use of innovative ideas provides a competitive edge, it’s good to understand how squeezing time and people can unwittingly squelch creativity, hurting an organization’s future. The best advice for someone who manages innovative thinkers is to nurture the conditions where creative ideas can flow most freely.