Beating the clock

Many IT people swear they do their most creative work under pressure. And many IT managers use pressure as a management technique, believing it will spur creativity. But research published in August’s Harvard Business Review indicates that the opposite may be true. Constance N. Hadley, a doctoral student in organizational behaviour at Harvard Business School; Teresa M. Amabile, professor of business administration; and Steven J. Kramer, an independent researcher in Wayland, Mass., studied the relationship between time pressure and creativity by tracking daily diary entries made by 177 employees – many of them in IT – on 22 different project teams. Hadley talked with Kathleen Melymuka about how time pressures in IT stifle creativity and what IT managers can do about it.

Your research is all about creativity, so first, let’s define it.

Broadly, we define creativity as “novel and useful solutions to a problem.” For this project, we included diary mentions about coming up with insights, discovering something, brainstorming, even clearly thinking about a problem.

Time pressure is a huge issue in IT. Were many of your research subjects doing technology work?

A substantial portion were software and hardware engineers and computer analysts, and one company we studied was an IT consulting company.

Why do many IT managers think that people are more creative under time pressure?

Our hypothesis is that people confuse productivity with creativity. Research has shown that people do more things when they’re under time pressure. In our project, they worked longer hours and listed more in the “work done” category. But that’s not the same as actually being creative. Also, there’s the myth of divine inspiration: When the chips are down, people come up with brilliant solutions. But neither our study nor the biographies of creative geniuses support that. Instead, creativity seems to be much more about a long process of playing with ideas and having time to work on them, taking some time away, then working on them some more.

So time pressure just doesn’t work?

I don’t want to say it never works. But typical conditions don’t foster it. Typically, it feels more like a treadmill.

Why does time pressure adversely affect creativity?

Creativity takes time. We use the analogy of juggling ideas. It takes time to come up with the balls to juggle in the air and time to juggle them. It takes time to explore solutions. Also, it seems that in the decision-making process, under time pressure, people shut down a lot of the breadth of cognitive thinking. They don’t explore as many options as they should, and they don’t pay sufficient attention to the negative aspects, so there’s a cognitive dimension as well.

But there are exceptions. What makes for creative thinking under the gun?

We call that “on a mission.” We found one of the biggest things was a sense of focus, both mentally and physically.

We saw people on a mission sequester themselves with maybe one other person alone in a room for the day, or even work from home to give themselves the ability to be free from interruption and distraction. The second big factor is to really buy into the importance of the mission. We use as an example the Apollo 13 crew and the support team in Houston [which created a life-saving solution under intense time pressure].

You really need to think what you are doing is worth the time pressure. It has to be meaningful and urgent enough for you to want to devote your time to it.

And that’s not often the case?

No. In contrast to that, we more often see the treadmill, where deadlines seem arbitrary and imposed and don’t make any sense.

The examples in the article seem to indicate an inverse correlation between creative work and group activity. Did you find that?

People tended to work creatively by themselves or with one or two others. We think that’s because multiple people means multiple agendas are present, so you don’t have that focus. But it doesn’t necessarily mean large groups can’t be creative. Look at Apollo 13.

What can IT managers do to minimize the effects of time pressure on creativity?

In the ideal world, avoid time pressure. That can’t be understated. In many cases in our study, the teams felt from the beginning that they were behind the eight ball and there was not enough time or resources to do what they had to do. In that situation, the best you can do is try to create a sense of urgency and allow the team members to find time to focus. There is research that shows that engineers who had a couple hours quiet time every week got more done.

Is there anything an IT worker can do in a pressure-cooker project to foster his own creativity?

If you can’t change the constraints, follow the path many in our study took and protect your time as best you can. Some took early mornings away from other work. Some even hid in conference rooms where others couldn’t find them. One disconnected the phone. There may be ramifications if the team needs your help, but if it’s the only way to solve a problem creatively, you might want to consider it. To the extent you can engage in problem solving and internalize the urgency, you’re more likely to have energy to put toward being creative.

Melymuka is a Computerworld contributing writer in Duxbury, Mass. Contact her at