Teresa Amabile, a social psychologist and Harvard Business School professor, has been conducting studies about Creativity in the workplace for years in her quest to open up the "black box" of creativity. Some of the most profound insights uncovered by Amabile and her team of researchers have come about from analyzing thousands of daily journal entries from employees spanning three industries, seven companies, and 26 Creative project teams.

The research showed that people who are under a lot of time Pressure on a given day, feel very productive and tend to feel very creative. But here's the surprise: "They were actually significantly less likely to come up with creative ideas, or solve problems creatively on those days."

Amabile says working under a high time pressure, is like being on a treadmill. People might feel like they are dealing with a lot coming at them, but their attention is fragmented and they aren't getting anywhere on their most important work. Time pressure quashes creativity because it limits people's freedom to ponder different options and directions. 

"We found that people were most creative most of the time when they were under low to moderate time pressure."

The times when high pressure sparked high level of creativity occurred when people "absolutely understood the need for the time pressure like a competitor was about to come out with a product just like theirs and they had to get there first, or there was a desperate customer in need, or there's a desperate societal need in some cases."

Constant high pressure is not sustainable:

 "Managers who believe that frenetic activity is the hallmark of innovation may be making a serious mistake. Not only may it lead to burn-out and hampered progress in the long run, but it may also kill creativity in the short run."

Amabile says that while you can't actually manage the creative process itself (I beg to differ on that one. I believe that giving people a common language and structure for the creative process will help manage it) you can certainly manage the conditions for creativity. "Managers can take steps to protect time for employees to engage in creative cognitive processing, particularly those employees whose work calls for a high degree of creativity."

3 Takeaways from the research 

  1. Help people understand the meaning of their work, number one. Let them understand the importance of what they're doing, their own individual actions, and how that translates into something that will contribute to a customer need, to a societal need, to something that the company really needs to move forward.
  2. Try to give people enough time for projects so that they can explore, so they can do that background research to get the information they need, and then so they can play with it somewhat. That doesn't mean indefinite time frames, but it probably means longer time frames than people are usually given in most companies for most projects.
  3. Let people have quiet time to work in a focused manner on their own. This can really improve productivity and creativity.

Bottom line: Look for ways to overcome the poverty of time so many of us suffer from and give people time to think. It will save you time in the long run.