Arbitrary deadlines are the enemy of creativity, according to Harvard research

Under pressure.
Under pressure.
Image: Reuters/Siegfried Modola
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Time can feel like the enemy to an employee in any role, and in any industry, but it’s most acutely threatening to creative types.

We may tease them for their diva-like behaviors when they feel persecuted by a deadline, but we have to admit that “develop an amazing new idea” is not something that slides into your schedule, like pick up lunch or respond to new clients. Nor can systems be tweaked and extra hands hired to help hit a goal that requires innovation, the way they can when mundane busy work is piling up. And yet deadlines are a fact of life for any company that wants to stay competitive.

In a recent Harvard Business School podcast, professor Teresa Amabile, whose academic career has focused on individuals, teams, and creativity, offers some guidance for managers who struggle to support or coax their creative talent. She explains that although the creative process itself can’t be controlled, certain structures can set up the conditions to move it along. Here’s how.

Aim for low to medium time pressures

When possible, managers should avoid tight deadlines for creative projects. In her work, Amabile found that creative teams can produce ideas on a deadline, and creative people may feel productive on high-pressured days, but their ideas won’t be inspired.

Scholars of time have found similar results in their research. Creative work operates on “event time,” meaning it always requires as much time as needed to organically get the job done. (Think of novel writers or other artists.) Other types of work operate on “clock time,” and are aligned with scheduled events. (A teacher obeys classroom hours and the semester calendar, for instance. An Amazon warehouse manager knows the number of customer orders that can be fulfilled in an hour.)

The more that creative people can feel they have some expansive period to work, the better able they are to be inventive.

Make the mission clear

Amabile’s research turned up one exception to the rule about oppressive deadlines hindering ingenuity: when a manager could convince the creator of the need for speed.

“Help people understand the meaning of their work,” she says, and they’ll be more likely to think creatively. Amabile calls it “being on a mission.”

“There were some instances where people were under time pressure, where they 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, ” she explains, “or there was a desperate customer in need, there’s a desperate societal need in some cases.” In such circumstances, she found, creativity was more likely to flourish than when there was no sense of a mission.

Let them have some alone time, and mental space

Creative people need another scarce commodity: mental space. Working in a large team and constantly collaborating as a group doesn’t allow a person the clarity of mind to solve problems with fresh ingenious ideas. “Alone time or working with just one close collaborator seemed to be the key under the low time pressure conditions,” says Amabile.

Creative people, she adds, “have to be protected. They have to be isolated in a way, from all the other stuff that comes up during a work day. They can’t be called into meetings that are unrelated to this serious problem that they’re trying to address.”

This recipe can’t guarantee that your imaginative geniuses will perform, but it greatly improves the odds they will.