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Apr 5, 2019 Accountancy Faculty

Brainstorm - then rest - is key to unlocking creativity

Tangible steps can be taken to help unleash employees’ creativity, according to new research from Laura Wang and Michael Williamson of Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Steven Kachelmeier of the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin. Their research suggests that the key to creativity is to incentivize workers to brainstorm as many ideas as possible, and then step away for an “incubation period.”

Michael Williamson_Laura Wang_portrait2“I think of creativity as connecting dots that you wouldn’t normally connect,” said Wang, an assistant professor of accountancy. “Because we incentivized people to brainstorm without worrying about the creativity of their ideas, they naturally came up with more ideas – even if they weren’t necessarily great ideas at first. After some rest, the initial progress provided more dots to connect, which eventually led to more creativity after a short incubation period.”

The authors conducted two experiments. The first asked participants to create rebus puzzles – riddles where words or phrases are represented using combinations of letters and images. Some were paid based on the total number of ideas they generated; some were paid only for ideas that met a certain threshold for creativity – as judged by an independent panel; and the final group received fixed pay of $25, regardless of the creativity or quantity of the ideas they generated.

To obtain a measure of creativity, the authors collected ratings from an independent panel. In the first round of rebus puzzles, no group came up with more high-creativity ideas, although the group paid for quantity had more ideas in total. Ten days later, however, the authors brought the same participants back and asked them if they had any additional ideas. Those who had originally been paid to generate as many ideas as possible now showed a significant advantage not just in quantity, but also in creativity. Stepping away from the project after initially brainstorming ideas was an important contributor to the eventual success of the group with this incentive, according to Wang.

To generalize their findings, the researchers ran a second experiment to determine if the length of the rest period made a significant difference. In this round of testing, the break after the initial task was only 20 minutes, during which one of the researchers took the participants on a 20-minute walk around the University of Illinois campus before returning them to the task. After that short break, the pay-for-quantity group produced more creative puzzles than the fixed wage group, even though there was no creativity difference initially.

“My big takeaway is that there are tangible things employers can do to facilitate creativity. Incentivize employees to be productive but do not judge their work, at least not initially,” Wang said. “Create a culture that encourages workers to take short breaks between periods of intensive work. From an individual perspective, know that working hard will eventually pay off in creativity if you can withhold judgment and allow yourself to break away. Even if you can’t see tangible progress, you need to understand that progress is there, and relaxing will help you be more productive.”

“Incentivizing the Creative Process: From Initial Quantity to Eventual Creativity,” by Steven J. Kachelmeier, Laura W. Wang and Michael G. Williamson is published in the March 2019 issue of the Accounting Review.