Sunday, May 22, 2011

Incentives vs Creativity

In a TED talk, Daniel Pink says that on creative tasks direct incentives, e.g. "the faster you solve the problem, the more money you get", make people perform worse, not better.

On one hand, we know, since Stanford psychologist Robert B.Zajonc's experiments on cockroaches, rats, chickens, and humans, that pressure and incentives improve a creature's performance on standard tasks. Cockroaches ran faster in familiar mazes when compete with other cockroaches; chickens peck faster at food when other chickens are around, etc. When the problem is unfamiliar, for example, a cockroach is given a new maze, the mere presence of other cockroaches increases the time the cockroach needs to solve the maze. To summarize, pressure brings out standard responses, usually, based on training and/or experience.

On the other hand, complete freedom of action doesn't necessarily brings creative results. Though Pink cites Google's 20% free time rule - it's often said that googlers are free to spend 20% of their work time on whatever they want - there's very little evidence that the rule works. My contacts within and around the company say that, due to lack of results, the program has been either completely scrapped or significantly reduced in scope. Besides, we all, even the creative types, face deadlines - there are papers to be written, inventions to be made, business deals signed, etc. Often, it's easy to mistake abundance of procrastination for lack of creativity.

Thus, we have a "creativity" dilemma:
- pro: We should use incentives and deadlines because they make people work harder to deliver on their tasks
- contra: W should not use incentives and deadlines because they bring up standard non-creative solutions.

Though I don't have a full solution to this problem, I believe at its crux lies the confusion between creativity and spontaneity. To me, there's seems to be an implicit assumption that creativity cannot be taught. Bot nobody really knows what creativity is. [Some, like psychologists R.E.Nisbett and M.Csikszentmihalyi, even say that creativity as a human trait does not exit at all.] Therefore, to solve the dilemma we have to question the "can't-be-taught" assumption", especially, in the area of technological creativity and problem-solving. In my personal experience, I was taught to be an inventor, and I either taught or helped other people to learn how to solve problems creatively. Some of it was spontaneous, but most of the time we relied on methods rather than luck.

tags: creativity, course, book, youtube, psychology

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