Article | Harvard Business Review | August 2002

Creativity Under the Gun

by Teresa Amabile, Constance N. Hadley and Steven J. Kramer


If you're like most managers, you've worked with people who swear they do their most creative work under tight deadlines. You may use pressure as a management technique, believing it will spur people on to great leaps of insight. You may even manage yourself this way. If so, are you right? Not necessarily, these researchers say. There are instances where ingenuity flourishes under extreme time pressure--for instance, a NASA team within hours comes up with a primitive but effective fix for the failing air filtration system aboard Apollo 13. But when creativity is under the gun, it usually ends up getting killed, the authors say. They recently took a close look at how people experience time pressure, collecting and analyzing more than 9,000 daily diary entries from individuals who were working on projects that required high levels of creativity and measuring their ability to innovate under varying levels of time pressure. The authors describe common characteristics of time pressure and outline four working environments under which creativity may or may not flourish. High-pressure days that still yield creativity are full of focus and meaningful urgency--people feel like they are on a mission. High-pressure days that yield no creativity lack such focus--people feel like they are on a treadmill, forced to switch gears often. On low-pressure days that yield creativity, people feel like they are on an expedition--exploring ideas rather than just identifying problems. And on low-pressure days that yield no creative thinking, people work on autopilot--doing their jobs without engaging too deeply. Managers should avoid extreme time pressure when possible; after all, complex cognitive processing takes time. For when they can't, the authors suggest ways to mollify its effects.

Keywords: Creativity; Innovation and Invention; Time Management; Working Conditions; Performance Evaluation;


Amabile, Teresa, Constance N. Hadley, and Steven J. Kramer. "Creativity Under the Gun." Special Issue on The Innovative Enterprise: Turning Ideas into Profits. Harvard Business Review 80, no. 8 (August 2002): 52–61.