How (not) to kill creativity; With thanks to Teresa M. Amabile – Part 1

Don't kill creativity

With the Digital Circle (DC) elections now done and dusted I felt it was timely to jot down my thoughts about encouraging creativity as its is broadly linked.  Further stimulus arrived on Monday by way of a tweet from one of the newly elected members of the steering group.  While this post isn’t aimed specifically at the work of that fine institution, there are parallels to some of the ideas raised.  DC is involved in the business of supporting digital creativity in all forms after all.  I am drawing shamelessly from the work of Teresa M. Amabile as well as on my own experiences from various roles.

I have had a lot of dealings with companies and individuals recently who operate in the “creative” space.  Creative in this case covers a broad spectrum spanning web, mobile, film, animation, design, gaming etc.  Feel free to consider yourself or business as being covered if you aspire to be creative in whatever you do.

Most of those dealings have been due to a natural inquisitiveness on my part to see just what excellent work is being done in the marketplace.  Partly it has been down to my wishing to help out where others felt I could add value by tapping on my experience.  An element has been to do with volunteering to assist those who might not have had the same breaks in life as I have had.

In trying to support creativity in Northern Ireland I am constantly reminded of an article originally published in the Harvard Business Review in Sept-Oct 1998 which was brought to my attention when studying the Creativity in Management module of my Masters.  That article was called “How to kill creativity” and was written by Teresa M. Amabile who was Professor of Business Administration and senior associate dean for research at the Harvard Business School at that time.  It made a huge impact on me at the time.  I still carry a PDF copy of it with me on my memory stick and read it from time to time.  Sad I know.

In her view Amabile suggests that creativity gets killed much more than it gets supported but also recognises that to be creative ideas must be appropriate – both useful and actionable.  So we are not dealing with creativity for creativity’s sake.  The outcome must be deliverable, functional, sustainable and self sustaining even.

She goes on to highlight how creativity will be enhanced if problems are habitually turned upside down with knowledge combined from seemingly disparate fields.  The implication being that creative solutions don’t just come from looking for answers within ones own industry but stepping outside of the comfort zone, engaging with others from different backgrounds, fields of expertise and communities.

Creativity is a function of three components.  These are expertise, creative thinking skills and motivation.  In her research she singles out motivation as being the key driver in what people will actually do.  What they will produce, what they will achieve.  Without suitable motivation that creativity will go untapped.

The two types of motivation are extrinsic (carrot, stick, money) and intrinsic (passion, interest, challenge, enjoyment).  While it is true that money is generally seen as a poor motivator in most respects I am also of the view that severe lack of money may act as a disincentive to those hoping to plough their furrow in the creative space.

Amabile looks to the intrinsic form of motivation to encourage and drive creativity.  In a nutshell she urges the reader to find real problems that they are passionate about and fix them for the challenge and enjoyment they bring – the rewards will surely follow, be they monetary or recognition by your peers and the wider community.

In the article Amabile outlines six categories that emerged from her team’s research as being key practices which had the effect of killing creativity.  These six practices weren’t simply the work of lone managers but were systemic in the organisations where they were found.  In the first part of this two-part blog I will look at the first three – challenge, resources and work-group features – and offer up some counter suggestions as to how those might be avoided.  I do this so that we might support and nurture creativity in this wee country of ours rather than kill it.


When forming teams those setting them up will invariably attempt to match tasks with those people who have previous experience of working on similar tasks and solving them.  Many would see this as a good thing.  If, however,  you are really trying to do something creative, to come up with new thinking, do you really want to settle for the same dependable results time and again?   This shot gun wedding is often due to limited time restraints and resources to really understand what skills and potential people are bringing to the table.  The most eligible person is wed to the most urgent and open assignment.  The results are predictably unsatisfactory for all.

Take time to understand those involved.  Understand which tasks would be challenging for them.  An amount of stretch is healthy for all involved and will yield better, more creative results all round.


In relation to granting freedom the key is to give people autonomy concerning the means, concerning process, but not necessarily the ends.  Throughout Amabile’s research they found that people tended to be more creative if you let them decide how to climb a particular mountain themselves though not necessarily letting them choose which mountain to climb.  Setting clearly defined strategic goals can often enhance creativity rather than kill it.  These goals should also remain stable, it is harder to work towards targets if they keep changing.

This autonomy heightens intrinsic motivation.  A recent article in The Guardian talks about even once prized careers becoming McDonaldised.  Let’s try to withstand the drive to the mundane and ensure that in this corner of these isles “permission to think” is a given.  Don’t claim people are empowered if the process is already proscribed.


Time and money.  The two main resources that affect creativity.  Those charged with supporting creativity should aim to capture both and allocate them carefully.  Remember also that more money is not always the answer nor is more time.  Under many circumstances shortages of both can heighten creativity.  Don’t use it as an excuse, especially in these straightened times.  A shortage of both can also increase the levels of intrinsic motivation by increasing the sense of challenge.

Encourage creativity by allowing time for exploration and schedule incubation periods.  Those who fail to will stand in the way of creativity.  Keeping resources too tight will also push people to channel resources into finding additional resources rather than getting a job of work done in developing new solutions, products and services.