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The Skill Of The Future

Forcing an individual to be creative, against pay, deadlines, and without breaks, leads to anxiety and performance issues

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Exhibit A: In 2004, Google’s co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, in a move then unheard of, announced in their Founders’ IPO letter to prospective investors that each one of their employees was free to devote one full day per week (20 per cent of  their time) to any fresh or existing Google-related passion project. The letter famously quoted the duo as saying, “We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google. This empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner.” Not coincidentally then that several of Google’s most well-known products like AdSense, Gmail, Google Maps, Google News, Google Talk, and Orkut, were born out of this rather ingenious move!

Exhibit B: In 1930, a soap company, Kutol Products, started manufacturing a wallpaper cleaner – a non-toxic, non-staining, reusable modelling compound to clean coal residue. Kay Zufall, a nursery school-teacher and wife of Joe McVicker, nephew of founder Noah McVicker, saw this pliable, putty-like substance and was struck by a brainwave – why couldn’t they market the dough-like product to kids as a toy? The trio called the cleaner Play-Doh and started publicising it aggressively within the kids’ toy segment. Within the next few years, Kutol, which was at the brink of  bankruptcy then, was out of  its financial turmoil. In 1991, Hasbro acquired the brand and now Play-Doh is one of its best-selling products!

It’s amazing what creativity, fresh thinking, and innovation can do, right?
Now that we are on the same page of the Creativity 101 handbook, let’s look at how organisations are faring in this regard.

According to Gallup’s 2017 American Workplace Survey of more than 16,500 full- and part-time employees, there are three fundamental factors needed to be creative at work  expectations to be creative, time to be creative, and the freedom to take the risks necessary to be creative. Unfortunately, each of  these qualities seem to be surprisingly rare. Only 29 per cent of  workers strongly agreed that they were expected to be creative or think of new ways to do things at work, 35 per cent of  workers said they’re only given time to be creative a few times a year, or less often, and only 18 per cent  of employees strongly agreed that they could take risks at work for the development of  new products, services or solutions.

A lot of you are probably wondering where rewards, monetary or otherwise, factor in this equation. Because let’s be honest, the easiest way to get somebody to do something is to offer them something in return, right? Like a parent luring a child with an expensive gift in lieu of good grades. Well, yes, and no. You see, rewards are arguably one of the most complicated ballgames out there. For tasks involving mechanical skill, monetary incentives are directly proportional to performance. However, once the task calls for “even rudimentary cognitive skill”, a larger reward “leads to poorer performance”. Psychologist Sam Glucksberg first demonstrated this in a famous 1962 study where Glucksberg asked participants to solve the classic Duncker’s Candle Problem but with an added twist.

For the uninitiated, Duncker’s Candle Problem was a test devised by psychologist Karl Duncker wherein participants were tasked with having to mount a lit candle against a corkboard, using  just a box of  thumb tacks and a box of matches, without any wax dripping below. The catch was, one group was presented the thumb tacks inside the box while the other group received each item separately. Plagued with something called ‘functional fixedness’, the previous lot was unable to view the box independent of  the thumb tacks. The latter could successfully perceive the box as a separate and functional component available to be used in accomplishing the task – mount the empty box of thumb tacks onto the cork-wall using the pins, melt the bottom of  the candle and stick it to the box. Ironically, the first group couldn’t think out-of-the-box, literally and figuratively!

Coming back to Glucksberg. He added a twist to this classic problem by adding rewards and deadlines. One section of each group was just asked to complete the task, termed low-drive; while the other section, termed high-drive, was given deadlines and increased sums of money depending on how quickly they solved the problem. As expected, the high-drive subjects in the group who had the empty box, performed better than the low-drive ones but astonishingly, it was exactly the other way around in the group plagued with functional fixedness. Here, the high-drive subjects actually performed worse than the low-drive ones! Why this contradiction, you ask? Well, imagine dangling a carrot on a stick to Newton to get him to arrive at the concept of gravity or keeping a ticking time bomb at the headstand of Satyajit Ray to get him to make Pather Panchali?  
The point I’m trying to make is: creativity is not a faucet which gushes with ideas at the flick of a switch. At an individual level, creativity and innovation stem from a person’s aim for autonomy, mastery and purpose. Most importantly, great work comes from a sense of meaningfulness, especially for millennials, who want to be a part of the overall vision of their organisation. Expecting creativity at gunpoint will hardly ever yield satisfactory results. In fact, forcing an individual to be creative, against pay, deadlines, and without breaks, leads to anxiety and performance issues.

According to a 2015 research by scholars at Stanford University, shifting the brain’s higher-level, executive-control centres into higher gear impairs, rather than enhances, creativity. The same study says, for heightened creative outcomes, one needs to reduce the activity in these executive-control regions rather  than increase it. A growing body of research also shows that taking regular breaks from mental tasks improves creativity; skipping breaks leads to stress, exhaustion, and creative block. The thing is, our brain has two modes – ‘focused’ and ‘diffused’. When we work on important tasks, especially those on deadline, we exercise our ‘focused’ mode, but we actually need the ‘diffuse’ mode to solve a problem or think tangentially. So, it’s hardly a coincidence that some of our best ideas strike us in the shower or when we are sleeping! Did you know, Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens, both relied on long walks to overcome mental blocks they were facing?

Which brings me back to Google. From driverless cars and solar-powered contact lenses to pills that search your body for disease, the company is continuously taking on projects which are ambitious, game-changing, and if successful, could impact humanity for the better. And all because they realise the importance of freeing employees’ band width for ‘free play’ or ‘unstructured time’ as parents are often told to do with children.

It’s time the rest of us did too.  

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Apurva Purohit

The author is President of the Jagran Group

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