Firing-Up Creativity: We Create Best When We Create to Help Others

Feel creative yet?

Andrew Webster, of ExperiencePoint (an interesting firm involved in change management and creativity competence-building http://www.experiencepoint.com/) connected me to the work of Adam Grant, a Professor at Wharton, who conducts research into work motivation, job design and a number of other related issues.

Last July he published an interesting article in the journal of the American Psychological Association titled “Motivating creativity at work: The necessity of others is the mother of invention” (http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2011/07/motivating-creativity.aspx). In it he shared the findings of research he undertook to explore the factors that might spur creativity that results in useful, implemented ideas (as opposed to novel ideas that sit on a shelf), specifically prosocial motivation, the desire to benefit others.

Writes Grant:

Research suggests that many employees care about benefiting others, both as a guiding principle in life and as a core value at work. When employees are prosocially motivated, they are more likely to adopt others’ perspectives to understand their needs and preferences.

Thus, employee creativity may be highest when employees are both intrinsically and prosocially motivated: they are driven to generate ideas based on a joint desire to enjoy the process of developing ideas and produce outcomes that benefit other people. Intrinsic motivation draws attention to novelty, and prosocial motivation encourages perspective-taking, making sure that employees’ novel ideas are also useful.

I could not help but reflect on things I had seen over the years, such as the incredible creativity and ingenuity of the people involved in things like the $300 house project, an idea sparked by an article by Vijay Govindarajan of the Tuck School of Business, to design a safe, low-cost shelter for the world’s poor and other efforts large and small whose objectives included a specific desire to help others, to make things better for others. In some cases these were not nearly as dramatic as the $300 house project, but more mainstream and commercial product innovation efforts. But it is the same driver at work, I propose, that led Steve Jobs and his teams to so passionately innovate and sweat the details of the iPod: they genuinely wanted to make a product that would make people happy rather than frustrated.

Put another way, when product developers and marketers are either disconnected from the customers of their work, or when the products they are dealing with are themselves uninspiring, shoddy or down-right bad for others, one cannot help but think the reverse is also true, that creativity and innovation is muted.

Grant article goes on to provide some background to his research:

Psychological research suggests that establishing contact between employees and end users may catalyze prosocial motivation and perspective-taking. For example, research suggests that exposure to others in need is a powerful driver of empathy and prosocial motivation (Batson & Shaw, 1991), and that contact with different groups reduces prejudice, opening the door for identification (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006). When employees have contact with end users, they can see how their work makes a difference in end users’ lives, developing a stronger concern for helping them (prosocial motivation) and gaining a deeper understanding of their preferences and viewpoints (perspective-taking). This may motivate them to work harder and smarter, and more effectively.

To investigate these hypotheses, I led a series of field experiments with fundraising callers who solicit alumni donations to a university. Although the donation money helps to fund student scholarships, callers rarely receive information about this important consequence of their work. One experiment involved randomly assigning one group of callers to meet a scholarship student and two other groups to control conditions (Grant et al., 2007).

The student spent less than ten minutes describing how the scholarship had made a difference in his life. In the following month, the callers who had contact with the scholarship recipient worked harder and more effectively, with average weekly increases per caller of 142% in minutes on the phone and 171% in donation money raised (Grant et al., 2007). In another experiment, a 15-minute visit from a different scholarship recipient motivated callers to increase average weekly revenue by more than 400%, from $411.74 to $2,083.52, resulting in gains of $38,451 for the organization in a single week (Grant, 2008b).

In both studies, the control groups showed no significant changes. In addition, the contact does not need to be with an end-user, as long as it provides novel information about the impact and social value of their work: callers were motivated to work harder when a previously unknown manager visited to express gratitude for their efforts (Grant & Gino, 2010).

Other studies have shown that when radiologists see a photo of a patient, they report greater empathy, write longer reports, and achieve greater diagnostic accuracy (Turner, Hadas-Halperin, & Raveh, 2008; Grant & Parker, 2009), and when lifeguards read stories about peers saving drowning swimmers, they perceive their efforts as having greater impact on—and as more valued by—swimmers, which motivates them to work more hours and spend more time helping swimmers (Grant, 2008a).

Notably, Grant points out that the benefits of contact between employees and end customers is not something limited to product developers. All employees could become more motivated in general and more motivated to ingeniously improve things if they can see and experience the direct or indirect benefit of their efforts. All too often firms try to motivate employees both frontline and executive by exhorting them to “be more efficient” or to “lower cost per unit through scale production runs” or to “enhance gross profit margins” by improving pricing.

It is just a hypothesis, but one wonders how much more creative and motivated a person might be in the name of doing something that helps people, some of whom they’ve met, compared to a monthly number? Conversely, what if the products or services your company produces doesn’t really make a positive difference in people’s lives? Is there any wonder why innovation might be less than what management wants or needs?