What drives creative thinking?

A very important aspect of leadership is to maintain and improve the productivity of the people they lead. This involves keeping people engaged and motivated. So of course, having a deep understanding of how motivation works, what keeps them engaged in the work they do, what makes them tick, is fundamental. 

To better understand this, let’s explore the concept of ‘functional fixedness’ which is a type of cognitive thinking bias which makes us automatically categorise things as preforming one function – like scissors are used for cutting, a fork used for eating food etc… while it helps us in our thinking by using mental shortcuts, it can also create roadblocks to thinking outside the box.

The term was first defined by psychologist Karl Dunker in 1945 in a famous experiment designed specifically to explore our capacity for creative thinking.

Participants were presented with a candle, a cardboard tray of tacks and a box of matches, with the task of affixing the candle to a wall in a way that prevented wax from dripping on the floor when lit. Surprisingly, many failed to realise that the tack box could serve as a tray for the candle if attached to the wall and those that did, took a long time to figure out the solution. As participants struggled to perceive the tack box as anything other than a container, overlooking its potential as a support structure, they needed to overcome ‘functional fixedness’ way of thinking about objects in order to figure it out. Leaders looking to keep their people engaged and passionate, need to create an environment that fosters creative thinking and pushes people to overcome this natural tendency.

As we age, our creative thinking diminishes and we become creatures of habit, going into autopilot for everyday tasks, sticking to what we know and doing things the way we have always done them. 

The question then becomes how can we encourage people to overcome functional fixedness at work in the jobs they do?

In his TED Talk “The puzzle of motivation” Dan Pink highlights the role incentives play in creating motivation by relaying the research conducted by scientist Sam Glucksburg; who built on this candle experiment by doing his own experimentation to see how participants performed if given particular incentives.

He gathered a group of participants and split them into one of two groups to do the experiment. For one group, he offered no incentives for the task. For the second group, he offered a compelling incentive; those who were fastest received a monetary reward.

Of course, you would expect the incentivised group were faster to come to think creatively, overcome functional fixedness, and come to the conclusion the candle can use the tack box as a tray.

However, the outcome of the experiment found that the unincentivised group outperformed the other one. On average they were 3.5 minutes faster than the incentivised group at coming up with the right solution. “This makes no sense. I believe in free markets. If you want people to perform better you reward them, right? Bonuses, commissions, their own reality show, incentivise them. That’s how business works. But that’s not happening here. You have an incentive designed to sharpen thinking and accelerate creativity, and it does just the opposite. It dulls thinking and blocks creativity.” as Pink reflects.

This finding. Despite it being a hugely tried and tested finding with evidence that is irrefutable, is one of the most overlooked findings in social science and behavioural thinking. 

There is a mismatch between what science knows, and what business does 

In a powerful insight Pink shares in his talk, “there is a mismatch between what science knows, and what business does”. 

But this is where things get interesting. Glucksburg continued his experimental research and gathered another group of participants and again split the group into two – an incentivised group, and a normalised group. This time, instead of putting the tacks in the box, the tacks were placed in a pile next to the tack box. In this instance, the tack box was easily seen as a tool to be used in the experiment, not just a container for the tacks so they did not have to think ‘outside the box’. The incentivised team performed much faster than the non-incentivised team. This experiment illustrated how incetivising people works very well for some tasks; tasks where you have a narrow focus and don’t have to think too creatively – you see the goal right in front of you and you work towards it with your eye on the prize. “The reward actually narrows our focus and restricts our possibility” as Pink puts it. 

The carrot and stick approach to motivation is no longer relevant 

As we move more towards a workplace where more of the straightforward work is automated, people are left to do more of the creative, conceptualised, strategic work – the work that requires you to think more creatively; work that doesn’t have a single set of rules with a clear, single solution.  

We need to move towards motivating people using purpose, using engagement; people want to do their work because they find it interesting, they feel it is meaningful, they resonate with the greater purpose of their work, they feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves. These are the proven motivating drivers that motivate people. 

If your leadership team could do with my help, please get in touch today, I’d love to hear from you.

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