The creative work environment
When doing research for my second book on creativity, I stumbled upon an article by Teresa Amabile, Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, called ‘A model of Creativity and Innovation in Organizations’ (in the book ‘Research in Organizational Behavior’ by B. Staw). I found her article when searching for information about the relation between ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ within organizations. These are very similar constructs, both revolving around the production of novel ideas, but what’s interesting about this model is that it thoroughly explains the different building blocks required for creativity and innovation and how they influence each other.
Amabile’s model was already quite intricate when first published in 1988; it has many different elements and interrelated diagram-arrows. Nevertheless, together with Michael Pratt (Boston College), she elaborated on the model (see image below) in 2016, adding new elements and making it even more dynamic. That’s why its new name is: ‘The dynamic componential model of creativity and innovation in organizations’. In this article I will leave most dynamics as they are, but instead focus on the question ‘how do you facilitate a creative work environment and increase an organization’s capacity to innovate?’
Creativity versus innovation
Let me first explain the difference between creativity and innovation – that’s how I came across the model, in the first place. Regardless the complexity of the model, in a quick glance it easily reveals the relationship between the two; creativity belongs to the individual or small group (at the bottom), while innovation happens on an organizational level (at the top). More specifically, Amabile explains that the individuals (or small groups) produce the novel and useful ideas, while the organization, as a whole, implements these ideas into the organization.
Individual creativity is the most crucial element of organizational innovation, but it is not, by itself, sufficient
The similarity between creativity and innovation is conveyed in the model by using the exact same diagrams (the 5-stages and 3-components diagrams) at the bottom and top part of the model (see image below), which shows that creativity and innovation require the same building blocks. The model also shows that the individual and organizational part of the model are two “closely interlocked systems”. This is based on Amabile’s important insight that “individual creativity is the most crucial element of organizational innovation, but it is not, by itself, sufficient.” In other words, the model shows that if an organization wants to be innovative it should hire creative individuals, but it should also create an environment in which the individual can optimally contribute to the organization’s innovation. It is the thick green arrow that depicts how the work environment influences individual creativity.
Three components of individual creativity
In this article I will focus on the 3-components diagram and will leave the 5-stages diagram as it is. The latter is an interesting, much-used model, introduced in rudimental form by Graham Wallas in 1926 and describing how the creative process goes through different stages. The model is less important though in explaining what is fundamentally required for a creative and innovative organization. I will also ignore elements such as ‘meaningful work’ (how important is your work?), ‘affect’ (what mood are you in?) and ‘progress’ (are you making progress?). Though these elements can influence one’s creative output, their role is too nuanced to concisely explain them.
I will now explain the 3 components at the bottom of the model, relevant for individual or small group creativity. They are called ‘skills in the task domain’, ‘creativity-relevant processes’ and ‘intrinsic and synergistic extrinsic motivation’.
You can imagine that in Elon Musk’s SpaceX, having the ambition to reach Mars and working with the raw material of rocket science, the creative possibilities to reach the goal are innumerable
The first component, skills in the task domain, are the skills that you need to do your work properly. They are obtained through formal and informal education and training, technical skills and special talents in the domain in which you work. On a cerebral level, Amabile explains these skills as a set of cognitive pathways for solving a given problem or doing a given task. She calls these skills the ‘raw materials’ for creative productivity. Some of the cognitive pathways are common and obvious (e.g. using an excel sheet if you are a financial planner), while others aren’t (e.g. coming up with a new business model for your company). The number of pathways differs per work domain, depending on the sophistication of the domain. The more pathways there are, the more abundant the possibilities for producing something new. For example, you can imagine that in Elon Musk’s SpaceX, having the ambition to reach Mars and working with the raw material of rocket science, the creative possibilities to reach the goal are innumerable.
According to Amabile, the second component, creativity-relevant processes, allow the individual to combine the raw materials in new ways and is thus favorable to taking a new perspective on a problem, thinking broadly, making unusual associations and pivoting among different ideas. In short, this second component is about exploring new cognitive pathways. These skills come with a working style and/or personality that is risk-taking, independent, non-conformist, energetic, self-disciplined, focused and persistent. You hope to adopt all of these characteristics, when you hire the ‘creative type’. Opposite qualities are, for example, inflexibility and a lack of social skills – making it hard for someone to collaborate with others.
The third component, intrinsic and synergistic extrinsic motivation, is a very important component on which Amabile has done extensive research. In her article Amabile argues that while motivation is often neglected by researchers, “no amount of skill in the domain or in methods of creative thinking can compensate for a lack of appropriate motivation to perform an activity.” Inversely, Amabile states that a high degree of task motivation can make up for a deficiency of the other two components. The reason is that motivation determines the extent to which the other two creative performance elements are used. Or, as Amabile puts it aptly: “Task motivation makes the difference between what an individual can do and what one will do.” This comes down to individuals with incredible knowledge and skills, who simply don’t have the drive to make great things happen.
Intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation
Within the motivational component Amabile makes an important distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Based on extensive research in the past decades she states that intrinsic motivation is more important for creativity: “people will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the interest, enjoyment, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself – and not by external pressures.”
Someone who is intrinsically motivated enjoys the journey at least as much as the destination
This also means that those who are primarily extrinsically motivated and driven by things like compliments, bonuses and social status, are less likely to generate truly creative ideas. The reason is, Amabile argues, that extrinsic motivation is focused on the goal rather than the explorative route that gets you there. Exploring new routes automatically means going through a process of trial and error. Extrinsically motivated people are not so much interested in this form of exploration. Instead, they seek the safest, surest and fastest or – on a cognitive level – well-worn pathway. Oppositely, someone who is intrinsically motivated enjoys the journey at least as much as the destination. Going back to the example of Elon Musk; though he might be driven by his large amount of stock options, he surely must enjoy being in the creative process and, more specifically, learning about new domains and the experimentation required to introduce new ideas in these domains. On extrinsic motivation alone, he would never be able to work 120 hours a week.
This doesn’t mean that extrinsic motivation should be avoided. Rather the opposite; Amabile also found that extrinsic motivation has a positive effect under a wide range of circumstances. As we all know work tends to get done (on time) under the constraints of deadlines, the expectation of an evaluation, rewards, and surveillance. However, the more important it is to come up with new ideas and unorthodox solutions and explore beyond the well-worn cognitive pathways, the more important the intrinsic motivation is and the more harmful the extrinsic motivation potentially becomes.
When it comes to motivating your employees to be creative, a compliment often works better than dangling a carrot in front of them – and is cheaper too, for that matter
In their second article, Amabile and Pratt elaborate on the synergy between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation by saying that ‘informational’ extrinsic motivators work more harmoniously and thus complementary to intrinsic motivation than ‘controlling’ ones. Informational motivators are rewards presented as recognition for a job well done, confirming one’s value. While controlling motivators come in the form of behavior-inducing bonuses, presented before the job has been done. Evaluations linked to these bonuses are often experienced as controlling and thus may negatively affect one’s sense of self-determination – and freedom to explore. Simply put, when it comes to motivating your employees to be creative, a compliment often works better than dangling a carrot in front of them – and is cheaper too, for that matter.
Environmental factors influencing individual creativity
As mentioned before, Amabile has duplicated the 3 individual-components at the bottom, into the organizational part at the top. And, as shown in the diagram directly above, the organization not just influences individual creativity, but the individual creativity also feeds into the organization. After all, “without creative ideas, there is nothing to implement” – as Amabile puts it. Though in essence the same, the organizational components have slightly different names.
The first component, ‘resources in the task domain’, is everything the organization has available to aid creative work in a targeted area. Just as on an individual level these are the ‘raw materials’ to be creative, such as facilities (e.g. ideation rooms), people (e.g. with innovation skills and/or different backgrounds), information (relevant for innovation), time (to explore new ideas) and money (to fund new ideas). The ‘skills in innovation management’ are, among other things: clear-goal-setting; giving teams the autonomy to explore; work assignments that are matched well to individual interests; open communication systems and collaboration across teams to facilitate idea exchange; absence of unnecessary hierarchical layers and training. The third component is the ‘motivation to innovate’ – about which I will elaborate at the end of this article.
Amabile obtained the knowledge used in the ‘componential-model’ partly through a series of interviews with research and marketing employees at large corporations – a study she published together with Gryskiewicz in 1987. In these interviews she asked which environmental factors within organizations promoted and which ones inhibited the employees’ creativity. In this article I will only go through some of the promotors – mainly because most of the inhibitors are more or less the opposite.
The goals should be tight, but on a procedural level, employees should have the freedom to explore
Amabile learned that the most important promotor of creativity within an organization is “the freedom to decide what to do or how to accomplish the task and a sense of control over one’s work and ideas”. No less than 74% of the interviewees mentioned this factor. This kind of freedom is traditionally created within R&D departments, where researchers have the budget and time to wander off the beaten path and explore ideas that might not seem directly related to the core business of the organization, but are therefore potentially innovative. Since organizations also need to accomplish certain goals that fall within their core business, it is important that these goals are known and clearly set among employees. That’s why there should be a balance between freedom and constraint. The goals should be tight, but on a procedural level, employees should have the freedom to explore.
The second most important factor, Amabile learned through the interviews, is good project management, which clearly belongs to the organizational skills component – 65% of the interviewees mentioned this. Among other things, this comes down to protecting individuals or creative teams from outside distractions and interferences. ‘Sufficient resources’ (belonging to the resources-component) came in third, with 52% mentioning this factor.
Two other important environmental elements that influence individual creativity are evaluations and reward systems – which are often linked to each other. This factor, Amabile explains, is a bit of a balancing act. On the one hand employees need to feel that they are appreciated and that management cares about the outcome of their work. But if evaluation and rewards are predominantly tied to positive results and if creative efforts – let alone failures – are not rewarded, employees will avoid taking risks and will not explore and try out new ideas. According to Amabile, evaluation and reward systems therefore need to generously and equitably recognize and reward both the effort and the outcome.
Similar to the rewards, time pressure and competition (also a form of pressure) are two elements that can also promote and inhibit creativity. Pressure can stimulate creativity because it gives a sense of urgency, which is important to get things done. But when the pressure is too high, the sense of urgency becomes inhibiting. Internal competition is often threatening and therefore has a negative effect. Competition with external parties can also be threatening, but since a mutual enemy brings teams closer together, external competition is more likely to have positive effects.
Since in many large corporations missions and visions are nothing but empty phrases, organizations should have a fundamental system in place for developing new ideas
The motivation to turn the tanker around
The third organizational component, the motivation to innovate, is explained by Amabile as the basic orientation of the organization toward innovation. This orientation should ideally come from the highest levels; the chairman president or CEO. The motivation can often be found in the organization’s ‘mission’ and ‘vision’ that is shared throughout the organization. However, telling your employees that you want to change the world is not enough when you are not really motivated to make it happen. Since in many large corporations missions and visions are nothing but empty phrases, Amabile stresses that if truly motivated, organizations should have a fundamental system in place for developing new ideas. This system is further defined in the other two organizational components of her model; resources and skills. The organization’s motivation can also be found in a culture that is genuinely open toward new ideas. And there must be an offensive strategy to execute on these ideas and thus an orientation toward risk-taking – versus clinging to the status quo.
Within start-ups and scale-ups the motivational component to me seems quite obvious, since these kinds of companies are almost per definition risk-taking. And since those companies are often young and inventing things from scratch, its processes are still flexible and its culture open to new ideas. In contrast, corporations that have been cash-cowing on certain products for decades (e.g. oil companies), work mostly on routine and have a hard time seeing and doing things differently. When these kinds of organizations want to innovate it is important that high-level management has a strong vision about how to turn the ‘tanker’ around and is genuinely motivated to do so. Which should translate into the formulation of a bold strategy, putting resources behind it and convincingly persuading employees out of their routines. If not, nothing will change.
One of the most important lessons Amabile drew from her employee-interviews is that relative subtle changes in the work environment can lead to a substantial increase in individual creativity. Which shows, as mentioned in the beginning of this article, that hiring creative employees is not enough. The entire organization must understand, facilitate and even stimulate creativity. So, to summarize things; when the creative employees within an organization receive sufficient freedom to explore new ideas and the organization as a whole is truly motivated to implement them, innovation should only be a matter of course.
Photo credit top image: frogdesign.com. Design (and other creative) agencies typically have the physical infrastructure for ideation, which means that their offices allow individuals and teams to collaborate in open and flexible ways. In the Dynamic-model this kind of infrastructure would be part of the organizational ‘resources in the task domain’ component.