Time Pressure and Creativity

by F.

HBS Working Knowledge tells us what we all knew anyway about creativity and time pressure. The Answerer in the following interview is HBS Professor Teresa Amabile:

Q: One of the interesting findings suggested by your work is that while people believe they are more creative under deadline pressure, they are not. At the same time, too little pressure does little to help creativity, either. So how does a manager find that “sweet spot” along the time/creativity continuum?

A: Actually, I don’t think it’s a continuum, but rather a set of conditions that seem to determine whether time pressure will have positive or negative effects on creativity.

As the HBR article points out, the results suggest that, overall, very high levels of time pressure should be avoided if you want to foster creativity on a consistent basis. However, if a time crunch is absolutely unavoidable, managers can try to preserve creativity by protecting people from fragmentation of their work and distractions; they should also give people a sense of being “on a mission,” doing something difficult but important. I don’t think, though, that most people can function effectively in that mode for long periods of time without getting burned out.

At the other end of the spectrum, very low time pressure might lull people into inaction; under those conditions, top-management encouragement to be creative—to do something radically new—might stimulate creativity. But, frankly, I don’t think there’s much danger of too little time pressure in most organizations I’ve studied.