In order to be successful in business you need to have good ideas and to execute on them. If you want to accomplish both you'd better not bury your head in the sand -- the tough truth is these two aims are at odds with each other.

That's the thought-provoking takeaway of a recent HBR post by University of Texas at Austin psychology professor Art Markman. Most of us strive to both be creative and get stuff done, but Markman points out an uncomfortable truth -- maximizing for productivity often means hampering innovation and vice versa.

"There is a fundamental tension between productivity and creativity," he declares. "Productive people move through the tasks they have to accomplish in a systematic way. They make steady and measurable progress toward their goals. They make effective and efficient use of their time. Creativity... doesn't. Creativity needs time and space to grow."

In order to be innovative people need time "to learn things that are not obviously relevant to their jobs, so that they will have a broad and deep knowledge base to draw from when they need to be creative." If they're always pushing hard to reach targets or cram more accomplishments into their days, that's not going to happen. "Creative enterprises rarely involve steady and measurable progress. Instead, being creative involves trying lots of different possibilities, struggling down several blind alleys before finding the right solution," warns Markman.

What are the implications for organizations and individuals?

It's a fascinating piece and one that's well worth taking the time to read in full, but assuming you accept the premise that creativity and productivity are in tension, what should you do about it?

Markman is very clear about what this reality means for organizations that value creativity -- get ready for higher staff costs. "If an organization truly wants creativity, it has to start by hiring more people than it needs just to complete the tasks required for the company to stay afloat," he writes. Citing Google's much discussed 20 percent time, he asserts that "you need to hire 10-20% more people than you actually need to complete jobs if you are going to give everyone an opportunity to develop their creative skills."

Markman has less to say about the implications for individuals, but others have delved into the tradeoffs necessary elsewhere. Maximizing productivity often means putting clever routines in place to conserve your decision making muscles and streamline your day, but according to some (such as entrepreneur Tac Anderson), routine is also a creativity killer. Creativity requires new experiences, spontaneity, and even loafing, not doing the same predictable things day after day.

The bottom line for individuals is that how best to design (or not design) your day is a function of your goals. If you're aiming to increase your productivity, predictability is your friend. If you need a spark of inspiration, it's time to embrace chaos and make some blank space in your calendar. Try to do both and you'll probably accomplish neither.

Are your days designed to maximize your productivity or your creativity?

Published on: Dec 10, 2015
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