Do Deadlines Foster or Kill Creativity?

A common method for getting productivity out of people is to set deadlines.

HBR contributor Elizabeth Grace Saunders promotes the use of deadlines, advising us to assign deadlines to work that matters.

So, if you want more productivity, then you should set tighter deadlines, right?

Wrong.

Setting tighter deadlines can actually HURT creativity and innovation. Unless people are performing purely rote tasks, this impacts the quality of their work.

The research shows us that the more stressful a deadline is, the less open you are to other ways of approaching the problem … The very moments when in organizations we want people to think outside the box, they can’t even see the box.
Richard Boyatzis, The Inner Workings of the Executive Brain

In the Handbook of Research on Leadership and Creativity, Scott G. Isaksen addresses the affects of time pressure on creativity in a chapter entitled “Leadership’s Role in Creative Climate Creation.” Isaksen shares research that affirms Boyatzis’ claim that high time pressure isn’t good for innovation. In some situations it helped when employees saw the time pressure as meaningful. It was also beneficial when leaders were supportive and gave positive feedback. Still, aggressive deadlines are generally unhealthy for doing innovative work. Research suggests that giving employees time to explore new ideas is more helpful than stressful deadlines.

Isaksen explains that leaders can influence idea time by:

  • providing more time for tasks that demand non-routine work (but not too much) instead of assigning similar deadlines for routine and non-routine work;
  • dedicating specific times for opportunity identification and idea-generation meetings versus asking employees to generate opportunities and ideas in addition to their day jobs;
  • joining in when they see employees having a spontaneous conversation about exploring new ideas and telling them the appropriateness of these conversations versus sending verbal and non-verbal messages telling them to “get back to work.”

Even though Saunders’ HBR article encourages readers to use deadlines, she also emphasizes the importance of pacing yourself.

Instead of setting one final completion date, like a final exam at the end of the semester in college, create mini-deadlines for pieces of larger projects. This strategy can work especially well if you have team members to help you refine your work prior to presenting it to a larger audience. Set a deadline for an initial draft, a run through, a revised draft, etc.

So, deadlines are important… but overly-agressive deadlines can kill creativity and innovation.

Dustin Staiger is a business and marketing coach in Houston, TX. He addresses team and individual effectiveness, marketing, communications and creativity for smaller, entrepreneurial organizations as well as large enterprises.

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