2004 - Creativity and reward
My wife is rarely happier than
when she is sitting at breakfast, working on a
newspaper crossword. I used to feel excluded by
this until, over weeks and months, she explained
the constructs of a cryptic clue.
Now we do the crossword together
and I notice we get the best results when we co-operate,
discussing ideas and perspectives. Sometimes I
suggest a race to find the first clue but the
pressure of competition tends to stifle our thinking.
Instead of experimenting with different propositions,
the thinking seems to get stuck in a creative
The same can happen when we link
rewards to creativity, according to Teresa Amabile,
a Harvard Business School psychologist, who researched
the effects of rewarding creativity in a study
involving more than 100 children.
The experiment focused on two
activities. The first was to tell a story from
a book that is made up of pictures with no words.
The second involved a Polaroid camera. All the
children were keen to take pictures with the camera
but one group were told they could play with the
camera only if they promised to tell the story
when they had finished. They had to sign a note
to this effect.
A second group of children were
simply told that there were two activities available
to them. They were asked if they wanted to play
with the camera, then asked to tell a story from
the book. There was no suggestion that one activity
was dependent on a willingness to do the other.
When the stories of the first
group were compared with those of the second,
the efforts of the second group were rated as
far more creative than those of the first.
Ms Amabile concluded that the
external control implied by the reward was sufficient
to impair creativity.
A similar experiment was carried
out, using various materials to solve a practical
problem. One group was offered financial rewards
for reaching a high-quality solution in a short
time. But the group that was offered no financial
reward produced the best result and did it quickest.
Ms Amabile says the experiments
expose a link between our intrinsic motivation
and the quality of our work. If we love what we
are doing, the creativity flows. But pile on some
external pressure or link the activity to a reward
and our creativity declines. I am not rewarded
for completing a crossword but I find it rewarding
in itself. It is the same satisfaction you get
from a job well done.
This might appear to contradict
what we know from the Skinner Box experiments
carried out by Burrhus Skinner, the US psychologist,
who illustrated the power of rewards by placing
a rat in a box with a food dispenser and a button.
The Amabile and Skinner experiments
are both discussed by Frans Johansson in a new
book, The Medici Effect*. Mr Johansson, however,
makes a distinction between linking rewards to
clear goals such as the food in Skinner's box,
and goals that are unclear or complex.
He also notes that not all rewards
have a negative effect on instrinsic motivation.
"Rewards that are provided as testament to
competence or as part of a learning experience
can prove very effective," he writes. "This
means that an innovator should receive the fruits
of his or her labour. In fact if such rewards
are not given, this is almost sure to stifle motivation."
The reward in this case may be
nothing more or less than "credit where credit
is due". But how often is the originator
of an idea forgotten by those who use the idea?
The history of innovation is littered with examples
of inventors who see their ideas exploited by
Harry Beck, the draughtsman who
devised the London Undergound map in 1933 was
paid only five guineas for the original work.
In fact, his map was rejected by the underground
management at first because it was not geographically
However, the map proved popular
with the travelling public from its inception
and has gone on to become a design icon.
But Mr Beck was unhappy that
his work was never properly rewarded: the most
visible recognition he received from his employers
during his lifetime was a plaque at Finchley Central
station in north London.
It could be argued that Mr Beck
was doing the job that he, as an employee, was
expected to do and that his managers gave him
the time and space to be creative. This was Aki
Maita's argument when she invented the Tamagotchi
toy - the virtual pet that sold in its millions.
Ms Maita did not receive a share
of the profits when she invented the toy. She
argued that producing and selling the toy had
not been her accomplishment alone, but that of
a large team. Her role was that of the originator.
Even so, like Mr Beck, Ms Maita received widespread
public recognition for her work.
Would either of these inventors
have achieved their success had they been competing
for some grand prize? We know that financial rewards
can stimulate invention. The Pounds 20,000 prize
offered by the British Government in the 18th
century for the first foolproof way of calculating
longitude proved a strong incentive for John Harrison,
the clockmaker who devoted his life to the project.
But if the prize was the original
stimulus, it was the project and the problem-solving
that propelled Harrison's efforts. When you look
at his clocks at the Greenwich Observatory, you
see a monument to a life of perseverance. Harrison,
like Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of St
Paul's Cathedral, let his achievements speak for
The relationship between financial
reward and creativity appears complex. But it
is clear that great work is stimulated by something
other than money.
Mr Johansson urges people to
seek out what he calls the "intersections"
between one interest or one way of working or
thinking and another. This kind of search, he
accepts, can involve taking risks. People may
need to pack in their full-time job if they are
to put themselves in the best position to innovate.
Does this mean that there is
nothing in his book for employers whose workplaces
rely for their smooth operation on processes,
systems and rules, backed by regular rewards and
On the contrary, there is a good
deal that managers can draw from this collection
of ideas. Perhaps the most valuable lesson for
the workplace - something implied rather than
stated by the author - is the need for employees
to be allowed some discretion over their work.
Whenever I have encountered great customer service
it has nearly always involved someone adopting
discretionary behaviour. Disappointments are usually
accompanied by the explanation: "I would
like to do this but the rules prevent me."
Every job needs structure and
every organisation needs rules. But we cannot
expect great work when the rules are perceived
The Medici Effect, Breakthrough
Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts
and Cultures, by Frans Johansson, is published
by Harvard Business School Press, price Dollars
as a pdf file