the last fart of the ferret

In Creativity Under the Gun, Amabile, Hadley and Kramer describe how time pressure has a negative effect on creativity unless the pressure is felt to be meaningful and is delivered in a form where individuals can work largely on their own and in a focused way. Where it's unproductive is when there's just too much going on, too many competing demands and pressures, too many distractions.

Creativity under time pressure, the authors maintain, is m
ost likely to happen when people feel 'as if they are on a mission'. In the absence of any time pressure, they argue that people in an innovation team need to 'feel as if they are on an expedition', which comes closer to the idea of drifting or wandering around, which I explored in drifting, angst and pan-ic. This sense of being on a mission or expedition also reminds me of Tom's euphoria at the outset and occasionally later on.

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

What Amabile et al. are talking about is motivation, of course. And, specifically, they're talking about what they call intrinsic motivation, which Professor Amabile elsewhere defines as 'authentic', as opposed to the extrinsic motivation produced by promises of a bonus or threats of redundancy. I'm not at all sure about this distinction. What about the motivation to look cool, to get a better job after completing the project successfully, to become famous as a result of delivering a triumphant new business to The Economist? Where's the boundary between intrinsic and extrinsic? Why should we try to create a boundary at all? (I'm afraid the answer to that is simply that 'blur' makes less good copy - and sells less well - than 'black and white'.)

The team members were equally unclear about this motivation thing. At different times, several of the team members explicitly said (see motivations) that they would have worked harder or longer hours if they had been offered a share in the eventual business. I don't know how true this was. They all seemed to work hardest when they sensed that their mission was possible and less hard when they felt it was going nowhere. They also worked hardest when presentations and other key deadlines were looming. Though we need to distinguish between working hard to complete a defined process - like preparing a business plan or a presentation - and working hard to be creative - which is a much more elusive skill, as noted by every writer or artist who endlessly defers creative work, choosing, instead, to do the washing up or a thousand other humdrum tasks.

Returning to intrinsic motivation, the factors that Amabile says enhance intrinsic motivation include: challenge, freedom, resources, work-group features, supervisory encouragement and organisational support.

Challenge is about getting a good fit, but not too good a fit, between the employee's skills and the task. (This relates to my discussion of who was chosen to do what job.)

Freedom relates to freedom over means but not ends. Specifically, Amabile says that 'creativity thrives when managers let people decide how to climb a mountain; they needn't, however, let employees choose which one.' Project Red Stripe could hardly have been given a broader brief than 'creating an innovative and web-based product, service or business model'. (Tom, one day recalled the cry attributed to many, including David Ogilvy and Pontus Nyström, of 'give me the freedom of a tight brief'.) It's possible to see the first couple of months for the Red Stripe team as having been spent deciding which mountain to climb. But then again, would the Group Management Committee have been well placed to tell them which mountain to climb?

Taiichi Ohno

The important thing seems to be, as Amabile et al. say, that the time constraints appear reasonable and that, as far as possible, they be imposed by the team itself, rather than from on high. This is at odds with one of my favourite ideas about creativity, which was developed by Taiichi Ohno, father of the Toyota Production System and an inspiration to many Systems Thinkers. In an interview with an Economist journalist (and which I have never been able to trace), he reportedly likened creativity in a survival culture to the last fart of the ferret. When a ferret is cornered it emits a powerful stench like a skunk, and employees, he said, when facing closure of the company, would come up with some of their most creative ideas. [Incidentally, if you search for 'last fart of the ferret', Google will rather coyly ask you if you meant 'last fruit of the ferret' - a delightful possibility which, sadly, produces no results if you accept the suggestion.]

But, to come back to the business of creativity itself, Amabile et al. suggest that creative thinking results from the formation of a large number of associations in the mind, followed by the selection of associations that may be particularly interesting or useful. This process of juggling ideas like balls is a playful process and it was noticeable that the team quickly abandoned some of its more playful activities under the pressure of time constraints. As Mike Seery notes in his report on the project:

However, as early as February, team dinners and outings were delayed or
rescheduled, because we were so concerned at using the time to work on concrete
ideas. In doing this we unwittingly removed a key element of what allowed us to
recharge our batteries and remain fresh and excited about the project.

Incidentally, though they didn't reinstate team dinners, they did in late March, at the instigation of Javier the team coach, begin to go out for lunch in twos and threes to build better relationships between them. Funny that, having sat round a table together all week, people should need to get up and go and sit round a different table to build better relationships. But that's context for you. And movement.


Set deadlines and create a sense of urgency or give people the time and space they need to explore in a relaxed environment without unnecessary pressure?

Offer financial incentives to participants or deliberately avoid them?

Give the team the freedom of a tight brief or the freedom of a wide one?

Continue to encourage 'unproductive' play, even as the team approaches the end of the project, or use it only at the outset to foster creativity and team cohesion?


Ferreteria: Dipfan
Professor Amabile: Harvard News Office
Pontus Nyström clip: sixtysecondview

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