Understanding the 5 Levers of Creativity

Time machine

Teresa Amabile says creativity has three parts: expertise, the ability to think flexibly and imaginatively, and motivation.

While the metric of accountability is important in becoming an expert (see the five attributes of being an expert), and the ability to think flexibly and imaginatively can be practiced, it takes time and effort to build these two.

However, it is possible to make tremendous strides by encouraging the third: intrinsic motivation.

Five levers

According to Amabile, to influence motivation managers/organizations have five levers to pull:

(1.) The amount of challenge they give

This should be joust enough to stretch a little, and not too much to fall outside one's comfort zone.

In many organizations, this still means assigning and being assigned work. An arrangement that is less common in more collaborative environments where the mindset of free agency prevails over rigid hierarchies.

More consultative type of work means individuals sign themselves up for work that fits them and that leverages their passion and skills.

(2.) The degree of freedom around process

Tell them what needs to get done and not "how" to do it. The study demonstrates how imposing too many constraints kill creativity and put a damper on taking the lead on projects.

Hearing statements like "this will not work", or learning about implicit procedures to follow are a turn off. Focusing on skill and mastery also depend on a unique expression of creativity.

(3.) The way they design work groups

It's true for individuals as it is for teams — matching skill sets with type of work makes a big difference. Putting the right people on a project takes a deeper understanding of the strengths of each member and how they can play off each other.

A good way to help a team stretch is by relaxing deadlines, give time for members to learn to work together. Tighten the deadline, and you'll need a group of specialists who can hit the ground running, get the job done, and still be working with you when it's all over.

(4.) The level of encouragement provided

Making the distinction between the need for coaching and mentoring is critical to applying the appropriate level of encouragement. Rather than being just an exercise in positive reinforcement, in itself a good thing, accountability needs to be owned.

Which means the best tool to negotiate support is feedback. When things go as planned, let the team/individual know.

When they don't go as planned, be specific about what needs to improve. The best way to mess this up is to say nothing at all.

(5.) The nature of organizational support

Super heroes work well in summer blockbusters (and sometimes not ever then). Elevating creativity leads to becoming better at innovation.

By virtue of being the bedrocks of possibility, organizations that foster a positive, "can do" attitude, are are better at building capacity and capabilities.

This type of culture attracts "can do" pros.  Because it creates the ideal context for individuals to pursue their intrinsic motivation, develop expertise, and use imagination to constantly adapt and adjust to new circumstances.


[Study source: HBR]


Valeria is an experienced listener. She is also frequent speaker at conferences and companies on a variety of topics. To book her for a speaking engagement click here.

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