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.
At the beginning of October, 1965, the Fab Four had less than two weeks to write a batch of songs for a new album that had to be in the stores for the holiday season. Then beginning October 12 they had four weeks to record the songs, which had to be mixed, mastered, pressed, packaged, and distributed by December 3. What they accomplished under the gun may be unprecedented in the annals of rock: one of the finest and most creative albums to date, Rubber Soul (featured #5 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”), delivered start to finish in two months. (Talk about a “time-to-market breakthrough”!) It included some of their best recordings ever: “In My Life,” “Michelle,” “Norwegian Wood,” and “Nowhere Man.” The band also knocked out a double A-side hit, “Day Tripper”/”We Can Work It Out” in the same period. This team seemed to relish working inside a tight box.
But after retiring from touring the following summer, The Beatles gave themselves from December 1966 to late April 1967 (a veritable lifetime, given their usual pace) to write and record songs for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—which would be hailed as a creative masterpiece by critics (and later rated #1 by Rolling Stone on the same list of “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”). The Beatles, inspired by the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album, took a wildly experimental approach (especially in production techniques) in their sessions at Abbey Road Studios, which was now available to them whenever they wanted. One recording engineer complained that the enterprising lads were so hell bent on breaking the rules they would continually tell him, “There’s no such thing as can’t!” The Fabs now seemed to relish working outside a tight box.
So which approach is optimal? Hard to definitively answer in a blog post. But I can say that under most business circumstances where time is of the essence constraints work pretty well—including an aggressive deadline. Yet when a team needs to think outside the lines and do its most expansive thinking and most exploratory work, setting up a looser structure with a more relaxed timetable has proven its worth. Even Jobs himself said that after he quit Apple in 1985 and the pressure was off, “It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.” It seems to depend on how disruptive and revolutionary you want your innovation to be!
I confess I’m a bit prejudiced towards Rubber Soul as a creative product because of its superior song quality. But Sgt Pepper broke the mold in SO many ways—from concept (a “theme” album) to musical arrangements (using a full orchestra and four pianos in “A Day in the Life”) to production effects to cover art—it blew the roof off of what was possible in rock music.
You can read that research study by Amabile, Mueller, Simpson, Hadley, Kramer, and Fleming here.
You can read about bands of the classic rock era that thrived under “constraints” here.