Article Review: How to Kill Creativity, by Teresa Amabile

How to Kill Creativity, 5/5 Sparks

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Teresa Amabile is a Professor of Business Administration in the Entrepreneurial Management Unit, and the senior associate dean for research, at the Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts.  Dr. Amabile received her Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford University and has produced over 150 scholarly publications. Additionally Dr. Amabile has published two books, Creativity in Context (1996) and Growing up Creative: Nurturing a lifetime of creativity (1989).  [Harvard bio]

Main Points

  • Creativity is not a fluffy or abstract force, rather, it is the capacity to develop novel and useful ideas and results from the combination of three distinct influences; expertise, creative thinking skill, and motivation.
  • Management can improve the creative output of their employees through actions and procedures that enhance the effectiveness of these three influences.


How to Kill Creativity is a must read for any manager or executive who desires to increase the number of novel, appropriate and actionable ideas generated by their employees. In her article, Dr. Amabile successfully disperses the mystified disillusions surrounding creativity and then provides concrete procedures and practices management can undertake to improve the creative output of their employees.

Creativity in Business

The association between artwork and creativity has led to some confusion regarding the appropriateness of creativity in the workplace. According to Amabile, many managers and executives unintentionally undermine creativity in their work environments with aims to increase productivity and control. The ability of a company to cultivate novel ideas that are useful and actionable, is becoming a leading determinant of long-term success. Companies that do not encourage creativity are doomed to have imbalanced R&D portfolios that favor incremental innovations such as product line extensions, minor product modifications, and minor internal processes improvements.

Creativity is the by-product of expertise, creative-thinking skill, and motivation. By understanding these three components and what activities enhance their effectiveness, managers can improve the level of creativity in their workplaces.


Expertise refers to the knowledge and skills individuals possess that pertain to their work. Hiring and project-team formation activities have the strongest effect on the level of expertise found in a workplace. When preforming these activities be sure to diversify the backgrounds and expertise of team members. If you create a large pool of knowledge, skills, and experiences in your workplace, the strength and quantity of actionable ideas your company generates will improve.

Creative-thinking Skills

Creative-thinking skills refer to “how individuals approach problems and solutions”, in particular “their capacity to put existing ideas together in new combinations.”

To encourage the practice of good creative-thinking skills in the workplace:

  • Allow employees to “set aside difficult problems temporarily, work on something else, and then return later with a fresh perspective.”
  • Encourage employees to feel comfortable disagreeing with others, train them to do so constructively, and train others to be receptive to disagreement.


Motivation is the easiest component of creativity for managers to influence.  Motivation determines the degree to which an individual is willing to do something. Amabile identifies two types of motivation extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic Motivations

Are carrots and sticks used to make someone do something. Extrinsic motivations are created outside of an individual and are often responsible for creativity problems in the workplace. The most common extrinsic motivator is money.

Extrinsic motivators often sabotage creativity improvement efforts because they:

  • Force the employee to “do [their] job in order to get something desirable or avoid something painful.”
  • May unintentionally incentivise the wrong behavior
  • Fail to make employees passionate about their work
  • Encourage employees to “look for the simplest, most straightforward path and then take it. In fact, if they are in a real rush to get that reward, they may take the most beaten path and solve the problem exactly as it has been solved before”
Intrinsic motivation

Encourages people to work for the challenge, interest, enjoyment, and satisfaction, of doing a particular task or project.  Intrinsic motivations are created inside of an individual and stem from the work itself.  The advantage of intrinsic motivators have is that the level of reward and gratification an employee experiences is directly tied to the success or outcome of the assignment.

Due to their origins, management cannot directly create intrinsic motivations, they can however, according to Amabile, drastically  influence the quantity and strength of intrinsic motivations with subtle changes to their organization’s environment. interesting, challenging and satisfying

How to Boost Your Company’s Creative Output

In her article, Amabile lists six areas managers should focus on when improving the creative output of their company. They are:

  • Pair people to assignments that match their areas of interests and expertise. According to Amabile, managers often kill creativity in the workplace because they do not “obtain the information necessary to make good connections between people and jobs.”
  • Set clear goals that remain constant for a meaningful period of time.
  • Give people autonomy and freedom in how they reach the goals. This will “heightens their intrinsic motivation and sense of ownership.”
  • Allow time for exploration.
  • Find the right balance of resources. Too many resources (including time) can dampen creativity, while keeping resources too tight can push “people to channel their creativity into finding additional resources, not in actually developing new products or services.”
  • Use time crunches and tight deadlines to increase the sense of urgency and challenge. Amabile warns, however, that fake deadlines or exceptionally tight ones will create distrust and burnout.
Work-group features

Ensure team members:

  • share excitement over the teams goal
  • display a willingness help teammates though difficult periods and setbacks
  • Recognize the unique knowledge and perspective that other members bring to the table
  • Come from a diverse set of background and perspective
Supervisory encouragement
  • Praise and recognize creative efforts before impact or success is known
  • Serve as role models, preserving through tough problems as well as encouraging collaboration and communication within the team.”
  • Stress the importance of the work.
Organizational support
  • Place appropriate systems or procedures and emphasize values that make it clear that creative efforts are a top priority.”
  • “Mandate information sharing and collaboration”

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