Last year I got the chance to see and meet Teresa Amabile at a conference in Boston and immediately afterward put her on my list of “really interesting, smart people I want to get to know.”  Teresa is a professor and director of research at the Harvard Business School, and at this conference shared research from her latest book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. Here is a short book description in case you haven’t read it yet.  You want this for your bookshelf!

In The Progress Principle, seemingly mundane workday events can make or break employees’ inner work lives. But it’s forward momentum in meaningful work – progress – that creates the best inner work lives. Through rigorous analysis of nearly 12,000 diary entries provided by 238 employees in 7 companies, the authors explain how managers can foster progress and enhance inner work life every day. The book shows how to remove obstacles to progress, including meaningless tasks and toxic relationships. Brimming with honest examples from the companies studied, The Progress Principle equips aspiring and seasoned leaders alike with the insights they need to maximize their people’s performance.

Check out her TedX Atlanta talk here:

It was Teresa’s research on creativity in this book and her earlier work that really captured my interest. As a designer, I’m constantly being asked by clients to find ways to increase collaboration in order foster organizational innovation.  Foosball tables, bean bag chairs and open spaces may look cool, but what does the research say actually fosters individual and team creativity and productivity?  Read on for Teresa’s thoughts on this and links to her research and talks.

LS: You study creativity and are one of the world’s most prominent researchers on creativity at work.  Can you share any findings on how the physical work environment can best facilitate creativity?

Teresa Amabile: I really have not studied the physical work environment specifically.  Interestingly, when I’ve done broad open ended studies of people trying to be creative in organizations, I ask them to describe a highly creative event from their recent work experience where they or their team did something highly creative and then contrast that with an uncreative event or project where they needed creative ideas and it just didn’t just come together.  People talk about a lot of things when they describe these instances, and rarely do they mention the physical environment they are working in.  There could be a many reasons for that.  And frankly, there is not a lot of research looking at creativity and the physical environment.  But would you like me to do some speculation?

LS: I would love it.  And I totally support your findings that research on the built environment is lacking!  This is something I’m committed to changing, but please, speculate away.

TA: When I have read accounts of creative incidents or projects, I have found a huge variety in the environmental settings in which they occurred.  There is a very interesting book that was put out several years ago by Warren Bennis – a professor at the University of Southern California, considered a guru of leadership and management – called Organizing Genius:  The Secrets of Creative Collaboration.  Bennis’ book describes six very creative, innovative incidents in the U.S. during the 20th century, and each took place in very different physical environments.

One of the incidents he describes was the creation of the original Apple Macintosh. Steve Jobs and his team were in a special building that wasn’t architecturally exciting, the way Bennis described it.  Another one of his stories is about Walt Disney and the team he put together for the project to create Snow White, which was a breakthrough in cinema – it was the first feature length animated film.  It was a huge success and it really started an industry.  Those people were working out of an old warehouse.  Bennis talks about the Manhattan Project, where people were working underground in a bunker that had been built into the side of a mountain.  Obviously enormously creative and innovative work took place there.  There are also countless stories about people building new businesses in their garages.  Hewlett and Packard, for example, literally started their business in a garage.  So I can think of a lot of examples of high-level creativity that was done under very difficult physical circumstances.  Clearly a “creative environment” is not necessary for creativity to happen.  I think it can be help though.

Teresa Amabile Interview

The HP garage on Addison Avenue in Palo Alto, California.

My research has found that people often do come up with creative ideas and solve complex problems collaboratively by working with other people, and by having their ideas sparked by other people. That is more likely to happen when people are in environments where they run into each other fairly frequently during the workday and in circumstances where they can stand or sit and talk to each other. So open spaces can do that, especially open spaces that people are likely to move around in.  If you’ve ever visited Pixar out in Northern California, they set things up so that different teams working on different projects have specific areas where they work.  It’s not completely open workspace – but there is a very large open area when you first enter the building, with high ceilings.  It’s sort of like an atrium, with lots of light and it’s the same area where they pick up packages and most of the restrooms are located right off of this area.  Assuming people will go to the bathroom at least once or twice during the workday, they will absolutely be running into other people as they walk to and fro. And the space is flexible enough that people can have impromptu or scheduled, small or large group meetings there.  I think spaces like that can be very helpful.

Interview with Teresa Amabile

Pixar “atrium” space in Emeryville, California.

IDEO, the design firm, is well known for having open spaces with comfortable places for people to sit and hang out together. There is almost always a white board within 6 feet of wherever you are sitting. I’ve now spent time in two of their offices, and though these offices looked very different, there are always white boards or Post-it notes close at hand so people can sketch out ideas.  People walking by can get engaged if they are so inclined.  I’ve actually done a lot of research at IDEO and I know that ideas are sparked that way; I’ve seen it happen.  There is also a down-side, which is that is very difficult for people to have quiet space to think, reflect on things and create something solo.  Some people really do need that.  Those who do often adapt to these more open atmospheres now by wearing noise cancelling headphones.  I think that most people who work in these environments enjoy them and really do feel the physical environment contributes to their creativity.

I suspect that you are not likely to be interested in working in one of these companies if you object to working in an open atmosphere. I’m sure there is some self-selection for those people working in those environments.  That said, a lot of what many of these creative companies do is very visual.  It’s not the same to have someone do a sketch on a computer and send it to you.  It’s often much more useful sometimes to have a drawing in front of you, something that two or more people can interact with together.  That could be a drawing on a white board, or a physical prototype that is made of paper clips, pipe cleaners cardboard tubes, etc.  That object becomes a focal point for people to discuss and build on each other’s ideas.  There are other kinds of creative work where visual or physical interaction is not as important – people writing copy for a script or creating an ad, for example.  However, even in those instances, being able to visualize a story line and together might be important.

The Progress Principle

IDEO Munich

LS: I think you are right – and getting the balance of collaborative and individual space is an eternal struggle with some of our clients who have people with different “creativity needs” in the same space.  But to switch gears a bit, can you tell me about some of your research on creativity at an organizational level?  For those of us who work in corporate America, how can we manage ourselves to more effectively increase innovation?  I’m especially interested in the “misconceptions” or common mistakes that leaders make when it comes to fostering creativity in their organization.  Are their times when they hinder creativity vs. enable it?

TA: There are two things I have found that are particularly difficult for managers.  One is the belief that people need really clear and specific goals in order to be creative.  Sometimes managers go too far with this, or they give the wrong kinds of clear and specific goals.

To give this some context, in our research for The Progress Principle, we analyzed nearly 12,000 daily diary entries from people who were trying to be creative, working on some of the most important innovation projects inside their companies.  We studied those diaries very carefully to see under what conditions people were able to do truly creative work, and what conditions seemed to undermine their creativity as well as their productivity.  And we found that people do need clear goals, they need to know what it is they are working toward, and why it matters.  Also, people need to be doing work that is meaningful to them, that contributes to something or someone they care about.  That said, individuals cannot be so tightly controlled by too-specific goals that they feel they have very little autonomy in how they carry the work out.  And that is the balancing act that managers often get wrong.

We found in one company we studied that most of the managers were very poor at achieving this balance correctly. Most of them were excessively micromanaging.  They would give very specific goals, specifying exactly what they wanted, what the product should look like, and exactly what it should do, with very little room for creativity.  And then they, particularly the head of R&D, would change the goals capriciously, without any consultation with the team and without any explanation most of the time.  All of the folks on the team were high level professionals – engineering, marketing, finance people – all were just left in the dark as to why things were changing.  The team would get their motivation up, would find ways to be creative within the constraints given to them, develop products they thought their customers would like and find useful, and then they would be told, “Get rid of what you were working on for the last 3 or 4 weeks, it’s junk now. We want you to work on this other new project now.” That happened repeatedly.  Not only did the team not have clear goals, because the goals kept shifting, but they also had very little autonomy.

So you can go in one direction as a manager where you are too specific (here is what we need and here is how you have to do it). You can also go the other way and leave lots of autonomy to the point that people don’t know what they are working for, or why it matters.  That balance is really important.

Another mistake I’ve seen managers make fairly often is responding inappropriately to failures and mistakes. Generally, when there is a success, most managers realize they should celebrate it with the individual or the team or sometimes the entire organization.  What they don’t understand, is that it is just as important to respond appropriately to failures and mistakes.

There are two inadequate, inappropriate responses to mistakes. One is to ignore them, sweep them under the rug, pretend they didn’t happen.  That feels like you are doing something kind, but really it’s not kind, because you are not helping people improve and develop.  The other reaction mangers have is to harshly evaluate people and criticize them for having tried something that failed or having made a mistake.  Assuming that the efforts were well intentioned, the most appropriate way to react to those situations is to debrief, to try to help the individual or the team extract some failure value from that experience.  That’s something that requires focusing on the work itself – that is, what was done, what happened, why did it happen, what does this mean about going forward and what else should be tried, what should we not do again, is there some piece of what we did here that we can salvage or repurpose for other projects or this project, and so on.  If managers can do this with their immediate subordinates, it has a hugely positive effect on productivity and creativity; people aren’t afraid to try something really new and different.  Because people are not risk-avoidant, they stay willing to take reasonable risks, and we know that people will not discover anything innovative or creative if they don’t “go out on a limb.”  So people do take appropriate risks and they very rapidly get back up after they have had a failure and get engaged in their work again.

There was one company we studied that did this astoundingly well.  We saw everyone from the head of this organization down to team leaders who did this. And it was a natural part of the workday.  If something was tried and it didn’t work out, there would be a quick debrief with the team, usually that day, reviewing what happened, looking at how they could  retrace their steps, understanding what went wrong, and how they could improve things for next time.  This organization has stayed among one of the innovative leaders of its industry for at least the last 20 years.  We collected data there many years ago now, and they are still doing great.  The culture is that of a learning organization.  They nurture something my colleague Amy Edmondson calls “psychological safety,” where you know it is safe to try something unusual and say something that may sound crazy.  It’s even safe to make mistakes and admit that you made mistakes, all focused on the work, not a specific individual.

LS: You studied seven organizations in detail for your research for The Progress Principle, but I know you’ve studied many more than that over the years.  Did you find any commonalities among the organizations that have more innovation-friendly cultures?  Are they from a certain industry, are they more west coast or east coast companies, are they a certain size?

TA: The only common element might be size.  I think that it is easier to stimulate creativity and innovation in a smaller organization.  I have found no correlation based on industry or location, however.  The most creative company I’ve studied to date is a chemicals company – who would have thought it? Another company I thought was really creative was a high tech company on the east coast.   In general, I’d advise people in large companies, who are trying to foster creativity, to create an “oasis” for each group they are trying to do this with. That means a local work environment with as much autonomy, encouragement for creativity, support for learning from problems, help with difficult work, and open idea flow as possible – even if the larger organization does not foster that sort of environment. It’s difficult, but I’ve seen it work.

LS: I know you are engaged in some interesting research now.  Can you tell us about it?

TA:  I’m doing interviews with employees across the lifespan – from millennials in the first five years of their career to people who have retired in the past five years – to study attitudes toward work, career, and retirement. I’m focusing on identity, the meaning of work in people’s lives, and the role of work relationships, but – not surprisingly – I’m also looking at the impact of being involved in creative activity at work and outside of work.

If you are interested in finding out more about Teresa Amabile or her work, here are some helpful links: