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Building a Creative Workplace

By Melissa J. Anderson

In a recent Harvard Business School working paper, “Componential Theory of Creativity” [PDF], researcher Teresa M. Amabile discusses the components of creativity, as well as the ways in which leaders can foster the productive creativity that can better serve their organizations.

Amabile starts off explaining that there are four components to creativity. She writes:

“In the componential theory, the influences on creativity include three within-individual components: domain-relevant skills (expertise in the relevant domain or domains), creativity-relevant processes (cognitive and personality processes conducive to novel thinking), and task motivation (specifically, the intrinsic motivation to engage in the activity out of interest, enjoyment, or a personal sense of challenge). The component outside the individual is the surrounding environment – in particular, the social environment.”

The workplace, the social environment, can prime an individual for creative output, and set the stage for success by amplifying the three within-individual components, particularly the intrinsic motivation component. By ensuring that workplaces foster creativity, leaders can better drive innovation within their companies.

The Creative Environment

According to Amabile, leaders can encourage creativity within their organizations by being mindful of the situations that catalyze or impede it. She writes:

“Other factors can stimulate creativity, such as a sense of positive challenge in the work; work teams that are collaborative, diversely skilled, and idea-focused; freedom in carrying out the work; supervisors who encourage the development of new ideas; top management that supports innovation through a clearly articulated creativity-encouraging vision and through appropriate recognition for creative work; mechanisms for developing new ideas; and norms of actively sharing ideas across the organization.”

On the other hand, a number of factors can slow creativity down, “such as norms of harshly criticizing new ideas; political problems within the organization; an emphasis on the status quo; a conservative, low-risk attitude among top management; and excessive time pressure.”

She describes how the creativity-boosting environment at the MIT Media Lab fostered the development of E Ink, the electronic ink used in the Amazon Kindle. She describes an environment in which scientists of many different academic backgrounds are encouraged to share and experiment with new ideas, which provides an element of psychological safety which removes a fear of ridicule and a good deal of autonomy for young scientists.

Managing creativity becomes even more important in a corporate setting, she continued. “The work environment component in organizations contains features, such as team dynamics and top management behaviors, that are unlikely to be as important, or even present, in non-organizational settings.”

She added, “Perhaps most importantly for practitioners, many managers have relied on tools and techniques developed from the theory to stimulate creativity and innovation within their organizations.”

Motivation

While the other three components of creativity (domain-relevant skills, creativity-relevant processes, and task motivation) are intrinsic to an individual, the workforce environment can affect them as well, particularly the motivation component. Amabile writes:

“Intrinsic task motivation is passion: the motivation to undertake a task or solve a problem because it is interesting, involving, personally challenging, or satisfying – rather than undertaking it out of the extrinsic motivation arising from contracted-for rewards, surveillance, competition, evaluation, or requirements to do something in a certain way.”

By acknowledging the intrinsic motivation for creativity, companies can avoid the trap of setting the wrong extrinsic rewards, which have been shown to actually decrease creativity in some cases. She continues, “A central tenet of the componential theory is the intrinsic motivation principle of creativity: People are most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the interest, enjoyment, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself – and not by extrinsic motivators.”

For example, as author Daniel Pink suggests in his TED talk “The Surprising Science of Motivation,” pay bonuses that are set too high can actually slow down creativity. He explains:

“If you want people to perform better, you reward them. Right? Bonuses, commissions, their own reality show. Incentivize them. That’s how business works. But that’s not happening here. You’ve got an incentive designed to sharpen thinking and accelerate creativity. And it does just the opposite. It dulls thinking and blocks creativity.”

Pink suggests that, rather than money, the factors that motivate employees to solve 21st century problems are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. By shaping a workplace built on these values, leaders can encourage creativity.

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