People often come up with their best ideas
when time is tight-at least thafs what
many executives assume. The trouble /s,
as new research reveals, it’s not true.
Under the G
TRULY BREAKTHROUGH IDEAS tarely hatch overnight.
Consider, for example, Charles Darwin’s
theory of evolution, which had a protracted evolution
of its own. Darwin spent decades reading scientific
literature, making voyages on the HMS Beagle to the
Galapagos and other exotic destinations, carrying out
painstakingly detailed observations, and producing thousands
of pages of notes on those observations and his ideas
for explaining them. It’s inconceivable that his breakthrough
would have occurred if he’d tried to rush it. In
business, too, there are striking examples ofthe value of
having relatively unstructured, unpressured time to create
and develop new ideas. Scientists working at AT&T’s
legendary Bell Labs, operating under its corporate philosophy
that big ideas take time, produced world-changing
innovations including the transistor and the laser beam.
Their ingenuity earned the researchers several Nobel
prizes. They, like Darwin, had the time to think creatively.
But we can all point to examples where creativity
seemed to be sparked by extreme time pressure. In 1970,
during Apollo 13’s flight to the moon, a crippling explosion
occurred on board, damaging the air filtration system
and leading to a dangerous buildup of carbon dioxide in
the cabin. If the system could not be fixed or replaced, the
astronauts would be dead within a few hours. Back at
NASA mission control in Houston, virtually all engineers,
scientists, and technicians immediately focused their attention
on the problem. Working with a set of materials
identical to those on board the spacecraft, they desperately
tried to build a filtration system that the astronauts
might be able to replicate. Every conceivable material was
considered, including the cover of afiight procedure manual.
With little time to spare, they came up with something
that was ugly, inelegant, and far from perfect but
that seemed like it just might do tbe job. The engineers
quickly conveyed the design with enough clarity that the
cognitively impaired astronauts were, almost unbelievably,
able to build the filter. It worked, and three lives
were saved.
The business examples of creativity under pressure are
decidedly less dramatic than that, but they abound as
well. The lauded design firm Tdeo has put its innovative
spin on personal computers, medical equipment, automotive
electronics, toys, and even animatronic movie robots
– and many of the new designs for those products
were drawn up in three months or less. If you’re like most
managers, you have almost certainly worked with people
who swear that they do their most creative work under
tight deadlines. You may use pressure as a management
technique, believing that it will spur people on to great
leaps of insight. You may even manage yourself this way.
If so, are you right?
Based on our research, the short answer is “no.” When
creativity Is under the gun, it usually ends up getting
killed. Although time pressure may drive people to work
more and get more done, and may even make them/ee/
by Teresa M.Amabile, Constance N. Hadley, and Steven J. Kramer

Creativity Under the Gun
more creative, it actually causes them, in general, to think
less creatively. Of course, the short answer is not the
whole story. Let’s take a look at what time pressure is, how
it feels when people experience It at work, and the different
ways it can be managed to enhance creativity.
Fighting the Clock
Maria was a software developer on a team charged with
creating an on-line system through which health care
providers could access vital information about certain
high-risk patients. It was critical that the new system be
error-proof because the targeted patients were elderly
or severely disabled individuals; in life-threatening situations,
accurate information about them had to be
communicated instantly. Unfortunately, the original contract
for the project had vastly underestimated the time
required to develop it. As a result, Maria and her team
found themselves under extreme time pressure as the
deadline approached. (Maria’s identity, like all individual,
project, and corporate identities in this article, has been
The team was working almost around the clock, even
though it was becoming clearer with each passing day
that the complex technical problems it encountered simply
could not be solved adequately within the original
time frame. Yet senior management, as well as the project
leader, pressed the team to meet the deadline, no matter
what. Maria recorded her experiences during this time in
a daily diary:
“At 7:30 this moming, my team leader asked me what
my game plan was for the day and if I could be available
for a rollout meeting. I wrote out on a flip chart what I
thought needed to be done today, looked at the list, and
told him it was two or three days of work. Now, as I am
burned out and preparing to leave for the day, I look at
the flip chart and realize that, at best, 20% ofthe work has
been accomphshed. This one-day list is really a four- or
five-day list The thing that most sticks in my mind from
the entire day is that blasted flip chart with so little
crossed off.”
A few days later, Maria seemed even closer to the end
of her rope:
“I told my supervisor that the hours 1 am working are
completely unacceptable and that I planned to leave the
company if this continued to be the norm on projects
Teresa M. Amabile is the Edsei Bryant Ford Professor of
Business Administration at Harvard Business School in
Boston. Constance N. Hadley is a doctoral student in organizational
behavior at Harvard Business School. Steven J.
Kramer is an independent researcher and writer based in
Wayland, Massachusetts.
here. The look on his face was a bit aghast. Was he really
shocked? Could this possibly be a surprise? All afternoon
I felt physically drained, as if I were running on low hlood
sugar. I slept very poorly last night, several hours awake
in the middle of the night. I feel physically exhausted
again right now-lack of mental clarity, lack of motivation
about the project.”
Maria wasn’t alone in her sense of the extreme time
pressure the group was working under. Richard, another
member of the team, kept his own diary during this period
and had this to say:
“The team leader announced that the project’s core
hours-when everyone is expected to be in the office and
working – have been extended: ‘They are now 8 AM to
7 PM, and don’t make social plans for the next three
weekends, as we will likely be working.’ This project is
now officially a death march in my mind. I can’t fathom
how much work we have left, how severely we underestimated
this project, and how complex this dog has
become. At every turn, we uncover more things that are
unsettled, incomplete, or way more complex than we ever
We collected more than 9,000 such diary entries in a
recent study of 177 employees in seven U.S. companies.
Our objective was to look deeply at how people experienced
time pressure day to day as they worked on projects
that required high levels of inventiveness, while also measuring
their ability to think creatively under such pressure.
Specifically, we asked each ofthe partic ipants-most
of whom were highly educated knowledge workers – to
complete a diary form on-line in which they rated several
aspects of their work and their work environment that
day, including how much time pressure they felt. In a separate
section ofthe form, we also asked them to describe
something that stood out in their minds about that day,
and we carefully analyzed those short entries for evidence
of creative thinking. (See the sidebar “Trapping Creativity
in the Wild” for a detailed description of our research
method, including our study’s specific definition of “creative
What we saw in those diary entries was both fascinating
and sobering. Many ofthe people in our study reported experiences
similar to Maria’s: They often felt overworked,
fragmented, and burned out. At the most basic level, then,
we found support for recent observations in the popular
press that Americans are feeling a time crunch at work,
creating what one Newsweek reporter called a nation of
“the quick, or the dead-tired.” The problem has been with
us for some time. As early as 1995, US. News & World Report
described a nationwide poll showing that more than
half of Americans wanted more free time, even if it meant
earning less money. And in 1996, according to a Wall Street
Journat~NBC News survey, 75% of those people earning
Creativity Under the Gun
Trapping rreativity in the Wild
Many ofthe findings we report in
this article are drawn from a study of
time pressure and creativi^ that we
recently conducted with Jennifer
Mueller of Yale School of Management
and William Simpson and Lee
Fleming, both of Harvard Business
School. That study included data from
177 employees who were members
of 22 project teams from seven U.S.
companies within three industries
(chemical, high tech, and consumer
products). More than 85% ofthe participants
had college degrees, and
many had graduate education. In
order to be included in the study, a
team had to be identified by senior
management as working on a project
where creativity was both possible
and desirable. In other words, these
projects, and our participants, were
considered the “creative lifeblood”
oftheir organizations. We believed
that we could better understand
what these people were experiencing
each day, and what was really
infiuencing their creativity, if we
tracked what was happening in
To accomplish this, we e-mailed
each member of each team a brief
daily questionnaire throughout the
entire course oftheir projects. We
asked them to fill it out and return
it to us at the end of each workday.
Somewhat amazingly, 75% ofthe
questionnaires that we sent out
were returned completed even
though some ofthe projects we followed
lasted more than six months.
This yielded the very high number
of returns (9,134) that we analyzed in
this study. The questionnaires contained
several numerical-scale items
about the work and the work environment,
including one that asked participants
to rate the day’s time pressure
on a seven-point scale. A similar item
asked them to rate the creativity of
their work that day
The most interesting part ofthe
questionnaire was the narrative
diary entry, in which we asked participants
to briefiy describe one event
that stood out in their minds from
the day-anything at all that related
to the project, the team, or their work.
(We did not ask them to focus on creativity.)
Because we asked for just one
standout event each day, the diaries do
not present a comprehensive account
of everything that happened that day
We assume, though, that they are a
representative sample ofthe important
things that were happening. And
although we saw some clear patterns
in the results.further research will be
necessary to determine definitively
what is causi ng what.
The diary entries provided rich information
about what people were
doing and experiencing each day. We
derived a “creative thinking” measure
by coding each diary narrative. A
narrative was considered to have evidence
of creative thinking if It described
an event in which the person
was engaged in any form of creative
thinking as the term is used in everyday
language; this included mentions
ofdiscovery,brainstorming, generating
ideas, thinking fiexibly, or “being
creative.” We also included many of
the cognitive processes that theorists
believe are important in facilitating
creative thinking: learning, insight,
realization, awareness, clarification,
remembering, and focused concentration.
All of these processes are
included in what we call “creative
thinking,””thinking creatively,” or
“creativity” in this article. (For more
details on the methods and findings
of our research, see the working
paper by Teresa M.Amabiie, Jennifer
M. Mueller, William B.Simpson,Constance
N. Hadley, Steven J. Kramer,
and Lee Fleming,”Time Pressure and
Creativity in Organizations: A Longitudinal
Field Study,” HBS,2002.)
In preparing this article, we went
beyond the statistical analyses ofthe
time-pressure study to develop a
richer view ofthe conditions under
which time pressure may or may not
have negative efFects. For that purpose,
we looked at four extreme conditions:
days of very high time pressure
when creative thinking did happen;
days of very high time pressure when
creative thinking didn’t happen; days
of very low time pressure when creative
thinking did happen; and days
of very low time pressure when creative
thinking didn’t happen. We took
a sample of 100 diary entries from
each of these four work conditions
and read them carefully to discern patterns
that distinguished them from
one another-for instance, that creativity
seemed more likely when people
were able to focus on a single activily
for most ofthe day.
In addition to that qualitative analysis,
we used the numerical ratings that
the participants reported in the questionnaires
to examine the number of
hours they worked; the degree of challenge,
involvement, and time pressure
they felt; the number of people they
vworked with; and the degree of distraction
they felt. The results of our
analyses are summarized in the exhibit
“The Ti me-Pressu re/Creativity
Creativity Under the Gun
more than $uxi,cxx> a year cited managing their time as
a bigger problem than managing their money.
Time pressure has become a fact of life for the American
worker. On the average day, our study participants reported
feeling”moderate”time pressure-and that was the
average. A great many of the participants’ workdays were
characterized by “extremely” high levels of time pressure.
“Today I realized that our time to get ready for the upcoming
presentations was almost nonexistent,” wrote one
participant in a fairly typical entry. Another, in a different
company, lamented that, “Overnight, 1 had to come up
with a fully detailed plan for the remainder ofthe development
phase, to let us know how far behind we were.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, although our participants
said time pressure was rather high most ofthe time, we
noticed a trend whereby time pressure seemed to build as
work projects went from early to later stages; as with
Maria’s project, people felt more and more pressed for
The Time-Pressure/Creativity Matrix
Our study suggests that time
pressure affects creativity in
different ways depending
on whether the environment
allows people to focus on
their work, conveys a sense
of meaningful urgency about
the tasks at hand, or stimulates
or undermines creative
thinking in other ways.
Time Pressure
Creative thinking under low time
pressure is more likely v^hen people
feel as if they are on an expedition.
• show creative thinking that Is more
oriented toward generating or exploring
ideas than identifying problems.
• tend to collaborate with one person
rather than with a group.
Creative thinking under extreme time
pressure is more likely when people
feel as if they are on a mission. They:
• can focus on one activity for a significant
part ofthe day because they are
undisturbed or protected.
• believethatthey are doing important
work and report feeling positively
challenged by and involved in the
• show creative thinking that is equally
oriented toward identifying problems
and generating or exploring ideas.
of Creative
Creative thinking under low time
pressure is unlikely when people feel
as if they are on autopilot They:
• receive little encouragement from
senior management to be creative.
• tend to have more meetings and
discussions with groups rather than
with individuals.
• engage in less collaborative work
Creative thinking under extreme time
pressure is unlikely when people feel
as if they are on a treadmill. They:
• feel distracted.
• experience a highly fragmented workday,
with many different activities.
• don’t get the sense that the work they
are doing is important.
• feel more pressed for time than when
they are”on a mission”even though
they work the same number of hours.
• tend to have more meetings and discussions
with groups rather than with
• experience lots of last-minute
changes in their plans and schedules.
Creativity Under the Gun
time as deadlines approached. Interestingly, we also observed
a slight trend in time-pressure changes during the
week: The time pressure started out relatively low on
Mondays, increased through the week to a peak on Thursdays,
and decreased on Fridays. This may be because managers’
expectations for productivity are somewhat lower
on Mondays and Fridays. Or perhaps it’s simply that, on
the days bracketing the weekend, people are already (or
still) in a weekend mind-set and less subject to feeling the
time pressure that exists. We also found that people were
more likely to report high levels oftime pressure on days
when they were traveling for work or working off-site. It’s
possible that people try to pack more work into such days
to minimize the total time spent away from the office.
And, of course, the many hassles of travel itself undoubtedly
contribute to feelings of being pressed.
Energy and Frustration
As described in the diaries, the days when our study participants
felt extreme time pressure were noticeably different
from the days when they felt less time pressure.
People tended to work more hours and were involved in
a greater number of activities, having to switch gears
more often, on time-pressured days. That provides us with
our first clue about how time pressure might affect creativity-
a clue to which we will return later.
People experienced different feelings as time pressure
increased, but we can’t simply say that they felt better or
worse, lt was a mixed bag. At first, people felt more involved
in and challenged by their work:”l am under a lot of pressure
to start up the manufacturing machine for our new
product this week….I was actually happy to run to the
hardware stores for hose fittings and bolts. For the first
time, 1 feel like we are truly making real progress.” And, in
surprising contrast to Maria’s reaction of feeling drained,
people generally felt more energized under high pressure.
As one diarist reported,”We are three-quarters ofthe way
there! I really enjoy seeing the team pull together.”
But some people also experienced deep frustration as
time pressure increased; “I frequently feel I am swimming
upstream on this project and always buried with work.” In
particular, they seemed frustrated by constant distractions
from other team members on time-pressured days.
One of our study participants told a particularly vivid
story about his frustration with a colleague:
“We had a meeting about what is going wrong with the
filtration program and how to come to an acceptable level
of understanding and information gathering. As usual,
Paul, Emilio, Sarah, and 1 were going at breakneck speed
trying to make sure we’re all pulling together. But Raj
could only repeatedly say, ‘But what part of my job don’t
you want me to do, if you expect me to do that?’ He was
argumentative and negative, and al! I could think was,
‘Stop it!’ I was able to control myself and didn’t scream at
him, but I was close.”
When we look at the whole picture of how people were
experiencing time pressure, it seems they were working
hard, spending long hours on the job, and sometimes feeling
jazzed about what they were doing. But at the same
time,there was a lot offrustration-another clue that will
help us understand time pressure’s effects on creativity.
The Pressure Trap
Our study indicates that the more time pressure people
feel on a given day, the less likely they will be to think
creatively. Surprisingly, though, people seem to be largely
unaware of this phenomenon. In their assessments of
their own creativity each day, the participants in our
study generally perceived themselves as having been
more creative when time pressure was high. Sadly, their
diaries gave the lie to those self-assessments. There was
clearly less and less creative thinking in evidence as time
pressure increased.
Moreover, tbe drop in creative thinking was most apparent
when time pressure was at its worst In the daily
diary form, participants were asked to rate the time pressure
they felt on a scale of one to seven, with seven being
the highest level of pressure. On the days rated a seven,
people were 45% less likely to think creatively than they
were on any ofthe lower-pressure days.
Managers might think that the occasional uncreative
day is simply the price paid for keeping work on a highly
productive schedule. If your creative juices freeze up on
a particularly busy Thursday, they might argue, you’ll be
able to get back to creativity on Friday when the demands
have died down a bit. But maybe not. To our surprise,
more time pressure on a certain day meant less creative
thinking that day, the next day, and the day after that. In
other words, whether because of exhaustion or enduring
postpressure cognitive paralysis, our study participants
seemed to experience a “pressure hangover” that lasted
a couple of days at least.
That lingering time-pressure effect showed up whether
we examined time pressure day to day or over longer
periods. The higher the overall sense oftime pressure that
participants felt during the first week oftheir projects, the
lower the level of creative thinking we saw from them
during the first half of their projects (a period that varied
from three weeks to four months). And the higher the
overall sense oftime pressure at the midpoint, the lower
the level of creative thinking in the second half
Why does time pressure have this dampening effect on
creativity? Psychological research over the past 30 years,
along with theories about how creativity happens, can
Creativity Under the Gun
A Peek into
the Diaries
These diary excerpts
were written by study
participants who experienced
the four work
conditions described in
this article. See if you or
your employees might
say something similar
about experiences in
your own organization.
On a Mission
(High Time Pressure,
High Likelihood
of Creative Thinking)
“At the end ofthe day today, after getting
the documents ready, it hit me as to how
creative Katherine and I had been together
when we had worked in a room,
away from the telephones, noise, interruptions,
and other distractions. I felt very
satisfied with the work we produced.”
“Just as I was knee-deep in Is and Os,
staring at an execution trace ofthe
firmware (which was acting strangely),
I got three phone calls in a row. I was
about ready to throw the damn phone
across the room. Fortunately, it stopped
ringing after that, and I was able to
refocus and find the problem. Hooray.”
“We found out today that the drop test on
one of our products was not done properly,
and we needed a way to pad our
product in a rush. I remembered that we
had $10 million worth of an obsolete cell
cushion that we were getti ng ready to
write off, and I suggested we use that.
It worked great!”
“I brought in some of my personal camera
equipment today and used it to create a
high-magnification video analysis system..
, I felt this was very creative work on
my part-passing on my knowledge of optics
and photography to an engineer who
will continue with this work.”
On an Expedition
(Low Time Pressure,
High Likelihood
of Creative Thinking)
“In my meeting with Seth to discuss
the imaging model, several ideas he
mentioned meshed with ideas I had,
and I came away with a better and
more detailed model.”
“Wendy brought in her samples ofthe
ILP films and presented them to me in
a way that really made sense and triggered
a lot of good ideas on my end.”
“John spent time discussing promotional
opportunities with me, and I felt like I
was really learning something.”
“I tried out my patterned adhesive wine
labels in the lab. Bought wine at the
grocery store and committed sacrilege
by pouring it into the sink. My patterned
adhesive didn’t really work well,
but I made some interesting observations
that helped me understand the
problem a little better.”
“While brainstorming ideas for solving
the axle retention problem, I discovered
a way to reduce the cost of our current
wheeled container. In addition, this may
give us a better product that is easier
to produce. I made a few calls to begin
investigating the feasibility.”
help to explain. Psychologists have long believed that creativity
results from the formation of a large number of associations
in the mind, followed by the selection of associations
that may be particularly interesting and useful. In
a sense, it’s as if the mind is throwing a bunch of balls into
the cognitive space, juggling them around until they collide
in interesting ways. The process has a certain playful
quality to it; in fact, Einstein once referred to creativity as
“combinatorial play.” If associations are made between
concepts that are rarely combined – that is, if balls that
don’t normally come near one another collide-the ultimate
novelty ofthe solution will be greater.
Considerable research, drawn from experiments and
from observations of creative activities, supports this view
of the creative process. And some recent research suggests
that the success of the combinatorial process depends
both on having sufficient time to create the balls to
juggle-exploring concepts and learning things that might
somehow be useful -and having sufficient time to devote
to the actual juggling. For example, one study we and our
colleagues conducted found that people who allocate
more time to exploratory behaviors while doing a task
produce work that is rated by experts as more creative.
Another study found that simply having a few minutes to
think through a task – studying the materials, playing
around with them-can lead to more creativity than having
to dive into the task cold. So we have still more clues about
how being under the gun might affect the creative process.
Creativity Under the Gun
On a Treadmill
(High Time Pressure,
Low Likelihood
of Creative Thinking)
“\ spentthedaytryingtogeta business
plan finished-or at least startedfor
this strategic alliance. I was very
frustrated by constant interruptions,
which make it necessary to get this
type of work done before or after
“Today was a very long day spent in
several meetings. We spend so much
time covering old issues instead of
driving the business forward.”
“I was informed that I have to come
up with a new launch rationale by
Monday so it can be reviewed by the
operating team. The relaunching
of the old printers is devoid of any
logical strategy. Now I have to make
up one that sounds good.”
“One problem after another occurred
today I had intended to complete
several different items for the product
transfer,but I spent the day fighting
fires instead”
On Autopilot
(Low Time Pressure,
Low Likelihood
of Creative Thinking)
“Very low energy today. Must be
the weather, but I feel whipped.
Focused on organizing and planning.
Put out an agenda for the
optimization meeting tomorrow.”
“Overall feeling of depression
“Mostly just doing paperv^/ork.
I cleaned up a lotof outstanding
“The team had an all-day meeting
with the general manager. He just
raised three questions, rather
than giving us a clear leadership
response to what we’ve done.”
“Today I gave a two-hour presentation
on product strategy and
plans for the new product launch
to our European marketing managers.
I was disappointed by their
[apathetic] response. The same
old issues came up and a moderately
negative attitude prevailed.”
Protecting Creativity
Even though time pressure seems to undermine creative
thinking in general, there are striking exceptions. We
know, from our own study and from anecdotal evidence,
that people can and do come up with ingenious solutions
under desperately short time frames. What makes the difference?
It’s time to put the clues together.
When we compared the diary entries from the timepressured
days when creative thinking happened to the
entries from tbe time-pressured days when no creative
thinking happened, we found that the creative days featured
a particular-and rather rare-set of working conditions.
Above all else, these days were marked by a sense
of focus. People were able to concentrate
on a single work activity for
a significant portion of the day. As
one diarist jubilantly declared: “The
event of the day was that I had no
standout events. I was able to concentrate
on the project at hand without
interruptions.” This focus was
often hard-won, as the individuals or
their managers went to great lengths
to protect their work from interruptions
and other disturbances: “There
were so many interruptions for chitchat
that I couldn’t get any decent
work accomplished. I eventually had
to go work very quietly in another
room to get some of it done.”
Indeed, tbis sense of focus implies
some degree of isolation. On the
time-pressured days that still yielded
creative thinking, we noted that collaboration
was limited. When it happened,
it was somewhat more likely
to be done in a concentrated way-for
instance, working with another individual
rather than in a group: “I had
a chance to talk at the end ofthe day
with Susan. She helped confirm that
the path 1 was taking was right and
helped me figure out some ofthe differences
in the codes. Her help will
keep me going.”
Another key condition for achieving
creativity on the high-pressure
days was interpreting the time pressure
as meaningful urgency. People
understood why solving a problem or
^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ completing a job was crucial, and
they bought into that urgency, feeling
as though they were on a mission. (See the exhibit
“The Time-Pressure/Creativity Matrix” for a summary of
the work conditions our study participants experienced.)
They were involved in their work and felt positively challenged
by it. The sense of urgency and the ability to focus
are probably related, for two reasons. If people believe
that their work is vitally important, they may be more
willing and able to ignore a variety of distractions in
their workdays. Meanwhile, managers who share this
sense of urgency may free people from less-essential
tasks. This was clearly the case in the Apollo 13 mission:
All nonessential work was abandoned until the air filtration
problem was solved and the astronauts were returned
home safely.
Creativity Under the Gun
But when this protected focus was missing on timepressured
days-and it very often was-people felt more
like they were on a treadmill. On these days, our diarists
reported a more extreme level of time pressure even
though they were not working more hours, and they felt
much more distracted. When recording the number of
different activities they performed, they were likely to use
words like “several,” “many,” and “too numerous to count.”
They were pulled in tcx) many directions, unable to focus
on a single activity for any significant period of time. One
diarist, paraphrasing the oft-repeated lament, said: “The
faster I run, the behinder I get.”
Our first clue, that people might have to switch gears
more often under time pressure, underlies this treadmill
condition; many things are clamoring for people’s attention
simultaneously. Remember, too, our clue that feelings
of time pressure are associated with frustration, especially
frustration with other members of a team. We
suspect that interruptions contribute to that frustration.
Other evidence adds to the picture of a distracted, disturbed,
confiising environment on treadmill days. People
had many more meetings and discussions with groups
rather than with individuals. Moreover, they often had to
cope with last-minute changes to schedules and plans. In
many ways, they seemed to be operating under greater
uncertainty: “At the meeting, we discovered that the work
we have done to date may have to be completely redone
because of a decision made by upper management to
change the way the new system will process customer orders.”
On these low-focus, time-pressured days, people
weren’t very likely to see what they were doing as important
or to feel a meaningful sense of urgency to complete
a project or task.
Did an absence of time pressure guarantee that people
would be more creative? Certainly not. Under any level of
Don’t befooled into thinking that time pressure
will, in itself, spur creativity. That’s a powerful
illusion but an illusion nonetheless.
time pressure, low or high, reports of creative thinking
were relatively rare; they showed up in only about 5% of
the 9,otxvplus daily diary reports. Under low time pressure,
the differences in whether creativity happened or
not seem to lie in the way people were spending their
days. Most noticeably, when people exhibited creativity
in the absence of time pressure, they were more oriented
toward exploring and generating new ideas than identifying
problems to be solved. (Remember our clue from
the psychological literature on combinatorial play.) People
behaved as if they were on an expedition. In addition,
if people in this condition worked with someone else,
they tended to spend the day (or part of it) collaborating
with only one other person; collaboration with many people
was rare. Having a single focal point to bounce new
ideas off of might help people stay oriented toward the
work on these more relaxed days, in contrast to having
many “playmates” at once.
Finally, of course, there were days when people didn’t
feel under much time pressure and didn’t show any evidence
of creative thinking. They seemed tt) be doing their
jobs, putting one foot in front of the other, without engaging
too deeply in what was happening. They behaved
as though they were on autopilot. On these days, there was
a generally low level of collaborative work, although
there were more meetings and discussions that involved
groups rather than individuals. And people felt the least
encouragement from high-level management to do creative
work. Perhaps if creativity had been encouraged
more, these individuals would have made better use of
their relatively low-pressure days.
Lessons for Managementand
Our research focused on knowledge workers – people
who, according to researcher Leslie Perlow, are most
likely to suffer from a “time famine” in contemporary
American organizations. These are the people from
whom we need and expect the highest levels of creativity;
they are developing the products, services, and organizations
of tomorrow. They are also the people who are most
handicapped in their quest to be creative.
— There’s no doubt that creative thinking is possible
under high-even extreme-time pressure. But
this seems to be likely only in a situation that, research
suggests, is not the norm in modem organizations:
being able to become deeply immersed, and
stay deeply immersed, in an important, urgent problem.
Given the demands in most organizations for
communication and process checks, as well as the
•” prevalence of highly interdependent work roles,
protected creativity time does not occur naturally.
What, then, can managers do to minimize the negative
effects of time pressure and use it appropriately in the service
of creativity? What can each of us do to maintain our
own creativity in today’s pressured organizations?
Our first suggestion is the obvious one: Avoid extreme
time pressure whenever possible, particularly if you are
looking for high levels of learning, exploration, idea gen-
Creativity Under the Cun
eration, and experimentation with new concepts. Don’t
be fooled into thinking that time pressure will, in itself,
spur creativity. That’s a powerful illusion but an illusion
nonetheless. Complex cognitive processing takes time,
and, without some reasonable time for that processing,
creativity is almost impossible.
Of course, it would be foolish to think that the ideal for
creativity is a complete absence of time pressure on a
particular work project. Given the demands that modern
life puts on people, it’s too likely that other things
would steal attention from the project-the urgent
would drive out the important-and nothing ^
would be accomplished. Moreover, it would be
easy for people to slip into autopilot mode if there
were no sense of urgency. Our research suggests
that low time pressure doesn’t necessarily foster
creative thinking-but that it can do so when people
are encouraged to leam, to play with ideas,
and to develop something truly new. Consider the
creativity-shielding practices at 3M. For many
years, that innovation powerhouse has had a tradition
of protecting 15% of the workweek for ere- ^~
ative endeavors. All its R&D scientists devote that
time to exploring whatever new ideas or pet projects most
intrigue them personally, even if those ideas and projects
are far afield from their assigned work.
For most companies, the best way to avoid undue time
pressure is to articulate goals at all levels of the organization
that are realistic and carefully planned, avoiding
the optimism bias that plagues a lot of corporate planning.
Announcing that a certain number of new products
will be developed in the coming year, without a sense of
the feasibility of that goal, will probably cause extreme
time pressure to ripple through the organization – right
down to the people who are actually supposed to be coming
up with the ideas for those products. Signing a contract
that promises to deliver items to a client by a certain
date, without careful scoping of what the project will
likely involve, can lead to the treadmill mentality that we
saw on Marie’s team. People may continue to advance
the work, but they won’t have the creative insights that
will send the project leapfrogging ahead to truly exciting
In situations where time pressure can’t be avoided,
managers should focus on protecting time-pressured people
who are supposed to be doing creative work from interruptions,
distractions, and unrelated demands for a significant
portion of each workweek. This concentration on
“real work” can reduce the time fragmentation that we
saw in so many of our participants’ daily diaries.
Perlow’s research in a high-tech firm, as reported in
her book Finding Time: How Corporations, Individuuls, and
Families Can Benefit from New Work Practices (Cornell
University Press, 1997), showed that engineers who agreed
to give one another such uninterrupted quiet time during
specified periods each day were able to get more done on
their projects and felt better about their workdays. Her research
also suggested, unfortunately, that it is difficult to
sustain such a major change in workday norms without
deep cultural change in the organization.
Creativity can also be supported under time-pressured
conditions if managers can help people understand why
tight time frames are necessary. It’s much easier to feei
Signing a contract that promises to deliver items
to a client by a certain date, without careful
scoping of what the project will likely involve,
can lead to the treadmill mentality.
that you are on a mission ifyou accept that there is an important,
urgent need for the work you are doing, rather
than feeling that an arbitrary deadline has been handed
down simply to make you run ever faster on your treadmill.
Our research suggests that managers should alst> encourage
one-on-one collaborations and discussions, avoiding
an excess ofthe obligatory group meetings that may
contribute to feelings of fragmentation and wasted time.
Finally, people may be better able to concentrate on their
work if managers minimize abrupt changes in scheduled
activities and plans.
* • *
In short, the key to protecting creative activity-including
your own – is to offset the effects of extreme time pressure.
The obvious way to do that is to reduce the time
pressure. But in cases where it is unavoidable, its negative
effects can be softened somewhat by getting your people
and yourself in the mind-set of being on a mission – sharing
a sense that the work is vital and the urgency legitimate.
It also means ruthlessly guarding protected blocks
ofthe workweek, shielding staff from the distractions and
interruptions that are the normal condition of organizational
life. The best situation for creativity is not to be
under the gun. But ifyou can’t manage that, at least leam
to dodge the bullets. ^
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