Creativity is more like curling than golf. You don't drive the ball, you make room for it to slightly change direction, and you have very little control over it. Even if it drives you crazy.  Creative bosses don't try to force their employees to be creative. It doesn't work. They don't even try to give their employees 20% of their time to be creative, or build an innovation lab for them, because those don't work either. Instead, creative bosses allow their employees to create naturally and individually. The keyword is allow.

The name of my upcoming book, un-kill creativity, was inspired by an article written by Teresa Amabile, Prof. of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School in 1998: " How to Kill Creativity."

Expertise and  creative thinking skills are the "raw materials" that your employees have. However, it is the third factor that turns those materials into creativity: motivation. The kind of motivation you need is intrinsic rather than extrinsic.

Extrinsic motivation is external to your personality. It's the "carrot and stick" motivation. It includes financial incentives, threats of termination, promotions, and others things that are completely external to you, controlled by someone else (your boss), and have absolutely nothing to do directly with the task at hand. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from within you. It is the passion you have, your curiosity to see the end result, the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment of conquering a difficult challenge, and other similar things that nobody else can control or provide you with.

Researchers studied other social-psychological factors that affected workplace creativity, including financial incentives, and concluded that "none of the results... gave the slightest substantiation to the theory that the worker is primarily motivated by economic interests." The bad news here is that incentives are easier for you to control. Sure, they cost money, but they don't require as much effort. Intrinsic motivation doesn't cost anything to implement, but it requires an effort by you.

Here are the six intrinsic organizational climate factors that affect employee creativity, as presented by Teresa Amabile. They don't cost money, but they require effort. Yours.

External challenges

Matching people with jobs for which they have expertise and skills, in a way that will challenge them to be creative. You need to pay attention to what makes your employees excited, and thus intrinsically motivated. "You have to do this because I said so" is not a way to motivate employees to be creative. Letting employees gravitate towards areas of the job that they like is. After all, "make your hobby your job, and you'll never have to work a single day in your life..."

Freedom for how, not for what

Allow your employees to choose how they do their job, or meet their challenge. Not which challenge to tackle. In Amabile's words: "... give them freedom to decide how to climb a particular mountain. You needn't let them choose which mountain to climb." Employees need to know what the goal is. Very clearly. But they should choose their own path and process to get there. You intervention in choosing the path (otherwise known as micro-management) reduces creativity. I know. I've done it many time.

Resources, just the right amount

The two most important resources are time and money. You have to allocated those carefully. Time pressure can drive creativity, but only if it is real and externally imposed. "Buffering" and fake deadlines will hurt trust, motivation, and creativity, and cause employee burnout. Sometimes, creativity just needs its time. Time is needed for the individual idea generation process, and procrastination is not all bad. Other, more tangible resources (money, equipment, materials) should be allocated appropriately. No organization I know has an unlimited abundance of such resources. However, keeping resources too tight will have an adverse impact on creativity. Amabile claimed that beyond a certain amount of resources, the law of diminishing returns comes into play, and adding resources will not increase creativity.

Workgroup features

The  construction of the team is very important to creativity. Teams must be diverse (in experience and skills), team members must share excitement over the team's goal, willingness to support each other when times are tough, and must respect each other's unique perspective. You are likely tempted to build homogeneous teams, but that eliminates the diversity of perspectives required for the team to be creative. "Everyone comes to the table with a similar mind-set. They leave with the same," said Amabile. Team composition is very important.

Supervisory encouragement

Creative people don't need a pat on the back all the time. They can find intrinsic motivation throughout the project. However, sustaining the level of enthusiasm requires you to encourage them every now and then. You need to celebrate successes, but also praise unsuccessful attempts. "Not every new idea is worthy of consideration," said Amabile, but overly criticizing new ideas and the people who brought them forward, and imposing a cumbersome, multi-layer evaluation process discourages the presentation of new ideas. Negativity for the sake of showing depth and authority is devastating. Punishment for failure is yet another way to kill creativity by discouraging your employees from trying, for the fear of failure and mostly--its consequences. One other form of management encouragement, as I learned during my service in the Israeli Defense Forces, is leading by example. When managers, supervisors, or commanders lead the way themselves. "Lead from the front" and not from behind. Employees have much more respect, and appreciate the support that get from a leader who leads by example, than from a manager who leads from behind.

Organizational support

To be creative, employees need to feel that they are supported by more than their teammates and immediate supervisor. They need to feel that the entire organization is supportive of their goal and efforts. The organization must have values that support creativity, and procedures that reflect that. Extrinsic monetary rewards, and especially contingency rewards will hurt creativity more than support it. Financial rewards make people feel controlled rather than encouraged. Bureaucracy should be minimized, and open communication encouraged.


This article is an adapted excerpt from my upcoming book, un-kill creativity.