Idea generation

How companies kill creativity

October 17, 2013: 11:45 AM ET

About half of "creatives" in a new survey say innovation where they work is stagnant or declining. The main culprit: lack of time.

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FORTUNE -- Let's say you lead a team of creative types -- marketing mavens, designers, copywriters, photo editors, graphic artists, or anyone else your company counts on to come up with fresh, compelling ideas and images. Maybe you've noticed over the past year or two that their output just doesn't sparkle the way it used to. That's fixable, says a new study, but only if you're willing to let creative pros step off the daily treadmill of emails, meetings, and memos.

iStock by Getty Images, an online photo and video service, recently polled 400 "creatives" and found that 60% of them had "great ideas" in the past year, but didn't have time to follow through with them. Nearly three-quarters (70%) said they need more "creative time," and 63% said they're so busy doing mundane tasks that there is no time left over for "creative reflection and inspiration." Almost one in four (23%) said they spend only about two hours a day on creative work.

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As a result, almost half (48%) believe creativity where they work has stalled or dropped off. Notes Ellen Desmarais, general manager at iStock, "Rising pressure from increasing workloads, ever-tighter deadlines, and constrained budgets are wearing creatives down."

Of course, these days almost everyone is under pressure to do more with less, but there's ample evidence that people whose job is to generate new ideas respond particularly badly to being rushed. Consider, for instance, an exhaustive study called "Creativity Under the Gun" led by Harvard Business School professor and innovation expert Teresa Amabile. Researchers examined daily diary entries from more than 9,000 people "working on projects that required high levels of creativity," the study says, and measured their ability to innovate under different levels of time pressure. It turned out that these folks were least productive when they were constantly required to fight the clock. When laboring under extreme time pressure, they came up with fewer fresh ideas, not just on the day of the deadline but for two days afterward.

"Organizations routinely kill creativity with fake deadlines or impossibly tight ones," Amabile wrote in the Harvard Business Review. "The former create distrust, and the latter cause burnout." Moreover, she added, companies often unwittingly crush creativity by giving innovators no slack in their schedules for the kind of dedicated daydreaming that leads to breakthrough ideas: "It can be slow going to explore new concepts, put together unique solutions, and wander through the maze" of untested possibilities.

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So what's a manager to do? Hiring more people to ease some of the routine workload would probably help, but if that isn't in the budget, the iStock report -- tellingly entitled "Free the Creative" -- suggests a couple of other ways to foster creativity. First, take a hard look at every meeting, status report, and other distraction currently cluttering creatives' calendars. Is it all really necessary? Or would far more of their time be better spent just thinking?

And second, forget about face time. "No great ideas are generated by sitting at a desk all day," says Rebecca Swift, head of creative planning at iStock. "Creatives need to experience the world to be able to produce ideas that the world can relate to." Evidently so. Asked by iStock's pollsters where they were when they developed their brightest ideas, most innovators said they were in the shower, working out, commuting, hanging out with friends or family, traveling, listening to music, or watching TV.

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