Publication: Journal of Management
Article: Multiple tasks’ and multiple goals’ effect on creativity: Forced incubation or just a distraction?
Blogger: Benjamin Granger
There’s no doubt that organizations value employee creativity. Researchers Madjar and Shalley (2008) wanted to identify factors that influence creativity at work. Specifically, they wanted to find out
-Does it help or hinder creativity if an employee has multiple tasks to complete in the midst of producing creative work?
-If an employee has specific goals for his/her creativity tasks, does this promote creativity?
-Are employees more creative if they are given the freedom to choose how they move from task to task?
OK, so the authors are interested in how these factors influence creativity. But what about creativity is important here? Madjar and Shalley focused their study on what is known as the incubation
stage of the creative process. The incubation stage is similar to the “aha” phenomenon in which an individual cannot initially come up with solutions to a problem, takes a break (goes to the gym, walks the dog, performs another job-related task) and suddenly comes up with solutions. These example
activities represent intervening tasks that take an employee’s conscious mind off of the task that requires creative thinking. Hmm, now this sounds a little fishy doesn’t it? Does this REALLY happen in the workplace?
As it turns out, it does! So, according to this study, organizations can improve their workforce’s creativity by:
1). Providing employees with creativity and/or performance goals for the tasks or problems requiring creative thinking (e.g., come up with 5 viable solutions to this problem). This helps focus employees’ attention to the tasks at hand.
2). Giving employees the flexibility to decide if and when they take a break from the task requiring creative thinking. This is based on the finding that taking a break from the creative task and working on a demanding intervening task places employees in the incubation stage which was found to lead to higher levels of creativity. (Finally, there’s justification for my Sports Center breaks!)
3). Use points 1 and 2 above in conjunction. That is, in this study, the most creative solutions came from employees who were given goals for all tasks, including the task that was intended to be an intervening task and given the freedom to move from task to task on their own.