A new study suggests there is an effective formula employers can use to unlock employees’ creative potential: Reward workers to generate an abundance of ideas — even mediocre ones — and then have them step away from the project for an “incubation period.”
The findings, published in the journal Accounting Review, reveal that people who were rewarded simply for churning out ideas, whether good or bad, ultimately ended up producing more creative ideas than those who received no pay incentives or those whose pay was based on the quality of their ideas rather than quantity. All the study participants stepped away from the initial task for a time and returned to it later.
“Creativity is not instantaneous, but if incentives promote enough ideas as seeds for thought, creativity eventually emerges,” said co-author Dr. Steven Kachelmeier, the Randal B. McDonald Chair in Accounting from the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin.
Creative performance is known to be enhanced by an incubation period, but this study posed a new question: What happens when you add incentives for idea generation to the equation?
Kachelmeier and his co-authors, Laura Wang from McCombs and Michael Williamson, from the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, conducted two experiments. First, they asked participants to create rebus puzzles — riddles where words, phrases or sayings are represented using a combination of images and letters.
Some participants were offered pay based on the number of ideas they proposed, some only for ideas that met a standard for creativity, and others a fixed wage of $25, regardless of the quantity or quality of their puzzle ideas.
Initially, none of the incentivized groups outperformed the fixed-wage group in measures of creativity, as judged by an independent panel. Creativity incentives, it would seem, do not work instantly.
But when participants returned to the creativity task 10 days later, those who had originally been paid to come up with as many ideas as they could had “a distinct creativity advantage,” outperforming the other groups in both the quantity and quality of ideas, Kachelmeier said.
The resting period that took place after participants had cranked out ideas was key to their success, the researchers said. Combining mass idea generation with an incubation period results in much more creative productivity than when either of the two strategies is used in isolation.
How much time is needed? That’s the question the team explored in the next experiment, in which they paid half of the participants a fixed amount and the rest of the participants according to the number of ideas they produced. As before, the pay-for-quantity participants yielded more, but not better, initial ideas than the fixed-pay group.
But after the participants went on a quiet, 20-minute walk around campus, the pay-for-quantity group once again produced more and better puzzles.
“You need to rest, take a break and detach yourself, even if that detachment is just 20 minutes,” Kachelmeier said. “The recipe for creativity is try — and get frustrated because it’s not going to happen. Relax, sit back, and then it happens.”
Source: University of Texas at Austin