Rubber Soul vs. Sgt. Pepper: innovation from a tight vs. loose timeline


Business leaders have different opinions on the right way to get innovative work from a project team: do you set up a tight structure with an imposing deadline or a loose structure with a flexible deadline?

Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer is a big fan of tight timetables and creative constraints which “shape and focus problems and provide clear challenges to overcome. Creativity loves constraints.” Amazon’s Jeff Bezos agrees: “I think frugality drives innovation, just like other constraints do. One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out.” Apple's Steve Jobs built a career on achieving breakthrough innovation from teams working under insane limitations, especially impossible deadlines.

In my own work coaching breakthrough teams, I’ve found that giving them an inspiring but difficult game to play—where there’s a clear and compelling purpose, challenging goals, maximum autonomy, but limited resources and a tight timeline—can bring out the best in a team, induce innovation, and produce a business result that far exceeds the norm.

But hold on. Harvard's Teresa Amabile, whose research cannot be dismissed, says that at least one aspect of working out of a “tight box” impedes creativity. A study by Amabile et al., “Time Pressure and Creativity in Organizations,” finds that "time pressure undermines the thought processes that contribute to creative output in organizations.” In fact, according to this research, creativity is associated with LOW-pressure work environments.

When I turn to my own trusted source of business wisdom—rock & roll bands of course—I get conflicting data. The Beatles (a small business team that for me epitomizes productivity and innovation) provide brilliant examples of both high-pressure AND low-pressure approaches. Their Rubber Soul album is the result of the former, Sgt Pepper the latter.