Last Fart of the Ferret
In Creativity Under the Gun, Amabile, Hadley and Kramer describe how time pressure has a negative effect on creativity unless the pressure is felt to be meaningful and is delivered in a form where individuals can work largely on their own and in a focused way. Where it’s unproductive is when there’s just too much going on, too many competing demands and pressures, too many distractions.
Creativity under time pressure, the authors maintain, is most likely to happen when people feel ‘as if they are on a mission’. In the absence of any time pressure, they argue that people in an innovation team need to ‘feel as if they are on an expedition’.
What Amabile et al. are talking about is motivation. And, specifically, they’re talking about what they call intrinsic motivation, which Professor Amabile elsewhere defines as ‘authentic’, as opposed to the extrinsic motivation produced by promises of a bonus or threats of redundancy. This distinction seems debatable. What about the motivation to look cool, to get a better job after completing a successful project, or to become famous? Where’s the boundary between intrinsic and extrinsic? Why should we try to create a boundary at all?
The factors that Amabile says enhance intrinsic motivation include: challenge, freedom, resources, work-group features, supervisory encouragement and organisational support.
Challenge is about getting a good fit, but not too good a fit, between the employee’s skills and the task.
Freedom relates to freedom over means but not ends. Specifically, Amabile says that ‘creativity thrives when managers let people decide how to climb a mountain; they needn’t, however, let employees choose which one.’
The important thing seems to be, as Amabile et al. say, that the time constraints appear reasonable and that, as far as possible, they be imposed by the team itself, rather than from on high.
This is at odds with a favourite idea about creativity, described in Inside Project Red Stripe:
"[The idea] was developed by Taiichi Ohno, father of the Toyota Production System and an inspiration to many Systems Thinkers. In an interview with an Economist journalist (and which I have never been able to trace), he reportedly likened creativity in a survival culture to the last fart of the ferret. When a ferret is cornered it emits a powerful stench like a skunk, and employees, he said, when facing closure of the company, would come up with some of their most creative ideas. [Incidentally, if you search for ‘last fart of the ferret’, Google will rather coyly ask you if you meant ‘last fruit of the ferret’ – a delightful possibility which, sadly, produces no results if you accept the suggestion.]
But, to come back to the business of creativity itself, Amabile et al. suggest that creative thinking results from the formation of a large number of associations in the mind, followed by the selection of associations that may be particularly interesting or useful. This process of juggling ideas like balls is a playful process and it was noticeable that the [Project Red Stripe] team quickly abandoned some of its more playful activities under the pressure of time constraints. As Mike Seery noted in his report on the project:
"However, as early as February, team dinners and outings were delayed or rescheduled, because we were so concerned at using the time to work on concrete ideas. In doing this we unwittingly removed a key element of what allowed us to recharge our batteries and remain fresh and excited about the project."
Incidentally, though they didn’t reinstate team dinners, they did in late March, at the instigation of Javier the team coach, begin to go out for lunch in twos and threes to build better relationships between them. Funny that, having sat round a table together all week, people should need to get up and go and sit round a different table to build better relationships. But that’s context for you. And movement."
Amabile, Hadley and Kramer: Creativity Under the Gun
Andrew Carey: Inside Project Red Stripe