Leading a Creative Team
Updated: Jun 27, 2019
As the world moves into an age of autonomy and artificial intelligence, human skills such as creativity become more important. To thrive in the new reality, leaders must also shift their management styles. The manager who successfully increased assembly line productivity 10% by optimizing the position of workers and their tools will find himself out of workers and ideas when the robots show up. The CEO who increased output by offering bonuses to employees who were able to meet production quotas will find that reward system not only ineffective for, but harmful to, creative productivity. Rather than being a director, the successful leader in the 4th Industrial Revolution will be a provider.
Of all the topics related to creativity, few have been examined by creativity researchers more than the role of motivation in the creative process. In repeated studies, intrinsic motivation emerges as a key predictor of highly creative ideas. When people are intrinsically motivated to work on creative projects, they are more willing to take risks, are more persistent, and more satisfied than when the motivation is extrinsic. The tenacious desire to solve a problem, create a work of art, or make a scientific breakthrough burns bright inside a creator.
Intrinsic motivation propelled the Wright Brothers on the cusp of the second industrial revolution as well. In his 1899 letter to the Smithsonian, Wilbur Wright explained he had been interested in “the problem of mechanical and human flight” since the time he was a boy constructing flying toys. He went on to assure them he was “an enthusiast, but not a crank in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine.” Wilbur was not motivated to solve the problem of powered flight to achieve fame or fortune, but by his intrinsic drive to satisfy his curiosity.
Internal motivation is important for high levels of creativity, but the relationship between extrinsic motivation and creativity is more complicated. Leaders often believe they can incentivize creativity by offering rewards in the form of monetary prizes or social recognition. External rewards work in a few, narrow cases. In most other cases, they are ineffective—and in some cases, they actually suppress creativity.
In one study, “Rewarding Creativity: When does it really matter,” researchers examined the interaction of personality type, job complexity, and external motivators. They used a personality test that places people on a spectrum ranging from Adaptor on one end and Innovator on the other to examine the role of individual preferences. Adaptors tend to thrive within established paradigms with established rule sets and value being recognized for achievements. Innovators, on the other hand, are more willing to risk straying from the standard way of doing business to develop new solutions. Where Adaptors seek routine, straightforward work, Innovators look for complexity.
In reality, everyone falls somewhere along the continuum. Both personality types are needed to make the world go around. We wouldn’t get much accomplished if everyone was always looking for a new way to do everything. Sometimes, you just need to get things done.
When an Innovator is working on a complex, poorly defined task, she is at her best. Offering a reward will not further inspire performance. If you have an Innovator working on a routine, simple task, you are doing it wrong. But, offering a reward actually causes creative performance to decrease as it snuffs out any lingering intrinsic motivation.
At the same time, Adaptors working in complex, poorly defined tasks do not respond well to rewards. The rewards tend to concentrate the Adaptor’s focus at the expense of alternative, creative solutions. As a result, creative performance decreases. The one time extrinsic motivation is effective is in the case where an Adaptor is tasked with simple, routine work. Finding the cause of manufacturing defects, cooking a weekday meal, or preparing students to pass a standardized test are all examples of relatively simple, but valuable, creative tasks.
In the age of autonomy and artificial intelligence, machines will be doing most of the simple, routine tasks for us, and extrinsic motivators will go the way of the smoker’s lounge.
Without the tried-and-true carrots and sticks, how can leaders manage a creative, intrinsically motivated workforce? Here are 4 tips:
1. Provide purpose. Doing work worth doing is a key element of intrinsic motivation. In an earlier article, I described how President Kennedy enabled intrinsic motivation to run the show at NASA during the space race. He was so effective, a janitor told him “I'm not mopping the floors, I'm putting a man on the moon.” Leaders who want creativity must learn to communicate the higher purpose of the team and collaborate with them to set intermediate goals.
2. Provide placement. While everyone can be creative, not everyone has an affinity for it. Most dogs can swim, but none will ever be as good as a dolphin. If leaders want to get the most out of their team members’ human skills, they have to understand what those skills are. Putting an Innovator in a routine, simple job will create frustration and poor performance. Assigning an Adaptor to a complex job requiring risk-taking will cause creativity to grind to a stop. Both Adaptors and Innovators have a role in the creative workplace, and it is the leader’s job to know employees well enough to match people to the assignments where they are most likely to succeed.
3. Provide space. Once team members understand the greater purpose and are properly placed, leaders need ensure adequate resources exist and get out of the way. Micromanagement is a creativity killer whether you are an Adaptor or an Innovator. Most creative ideas will fail. The Wright Brothers crashed several times before their first successful flight. A hovering leader directing every action is an extrinsic demotivator.
4. Provide cover. Creativity is tough. Innovation is even tougher. Coming up with a novel, effective solution to a problem is often the result of multiple failures culminating in a barely functioning prototype. Progress is erratic and sometimes difficult to see. SpaceX crashed billions of dollars’ worth of rockets and payloads before sticking their first landing of a reusable booster. While your business may not be able to accept this level of risk, it is the leader’s job to determine the level of risk she will allow and aggressively defend both the Innovators and Adaptors who work within those boundaries. Doing so builds trust in both the leader and the organization and will result in improved creative performance.
Leadership in the 4th Industrial Revolution is not drastically different than good leadership today. But, today's leaders who thrive on fiat and tight control will find themselves underwater when the team's key output is creativity rather than widgets.
Are you prepared to lead in the age of #humanintelligence? What are your tips?
Dan Manning is the CEO of Firepower Concepts, LLC, a firm teaching applied creativity to help businesses and non-profits solve their toughest problems. Combining academic study with techniques refined over a career as a fighter pilot and warrior-diplomat, Dan unleashes the transforming power of creative thinking to do what could not be done before. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the opinions of the United States Air Force or the Department of Defense.