Being creative is as simple as letting yourself come up with ideas — and then walking away for a while.


Image credits Pixabay.

New research from The University of Texas (UT) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) says that employers looking for more creative employees should encourage them to produce a wealth of ideas — even mediocre ones — and then have them take an “incubation period.”

Take a breather

“Creativity is not instantaneous, but if incentives promote enough ideas as seeds for thought, creativity eventually emerges,” said Steven Kachelmeier, the Randal B. McDonald Chair in Accounting at Texas McCombs and co-author of the study in the Accounting Review.

When people are rewarded for simply producing ideas, no matter if they’re good or bad, they end up producing more and more creative ideas, the paper reports. If your end goal is to foster creativity, then this is a much better approach than paying people based on the quality of their ideas (or not giving out any pay incentives at all). Another important requirement is to give these ideas time to grow, the team adds. All the participants involved in this study stepped away from the brainstorming part of the task for a while and returned to it at a later date. This approach — combining mass idea generation with a rest period — results in much more creative productivity than when either of the two strategies is used in the study.

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The research consisted of two experiments. In the first phase, participants were asked 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 generated; others, only for ideas that met a certain standard for creativity. Finally, the control group was paid a fixed wage of $25, regardless of the quantity or quality of the puzzle ideas they generated.

In the early stages of the study, both incentivized groups actually performed worse than the control (in measures of creativity as judged by an independent panel). However, in a subsequent return to this task (10 days after the first one), those in the pay-per-idea group had “a distinct creativity advantage,” the team reports, and outperformed the other participants in both quality and quantity of ideas produced.

The group with a combination of mass idea generation with a rest period outperformed either of the other two groups using these strategies in isolation. The striking surge in efficiency exhibited by the first group suggests that having an incubation period after an initial brainstorming step is key to improving creativity, the researchers said.

Exactly how much time this rest period should take was the focus point of the second experiment. Here, the team paid half the participants a fixed amount (these were the controls) and half for 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. However, after a quiet, 20-minute walk around campus, they produced more and better quality puzzles than the control group.

“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.”

The paper “Incentivizing the Creative Process: From Initial Quantity to Eventual Creativity” has been published in the journal Accounting Review.