It’s Time We Stopped Trying to Buy Creativity

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A new piece of research announced this past week caught my attention, not because it surprised me but because it didn’t.

Joel Waldfogel of the University of Minnesota found that the advent of widely available music downloads—and the corresponding financial hammering taken by the recording industry—has not reduced the amount or quality of popular music in the marketplace. That’s right, despite that persistent whining sound coming from the industry’s leaders, the net negative impact on the supply of good music has been zero, zip, nada.

In this cleverly designed study Bye Bye Miss American Pie? The Supply of New Recorded Music Since Napster, Waldfogel looks at 88 indices such as best of decade lists since 1960 and found that the number of albums meeting various quality standards hasn’t changed. Waldfogel says he’s surprised by his own findings. He shouldn’t be. They may be new in the debate over enforcement of copyright protection, but they’re not at all new to the field of creativity and innovation.

For years now, we’ve been hearing from the recording industry that the dramatic reduction in revenues due to file sharing would translate into less high quality music on the market. These executives have no doubt calculated that an appeal to consumer tastes is a more persuasive argument than crying about their own pocketbooks, and their view has a certain logic. Most businesses need to pay people to get productive work out of them, or why not just recruit volunteers? But when it comes to creativity, research has long since demonstrated that the money connection is much weaker—at times nonexistent. The  impact of such rewards can even be detrimental.

That’s the well-argued premise of Daniel Pink’s book Drive, in which he cites research that demonstrates that offering an extrinsic reward for performance can actually slow down a person’s creative problem solving. The reward not only doesn’t help, it can actually worsen performance. When you want a routine task done better or faster, extrinsic motivation like a monetary reward can be effective. But when the task requires creativity, it can backfire.

Creative people tend to be intrinsically motivated. They step up to challenges and work hard to find solutions because they enjoy doing it. Other compensation is secondary. A little discussed aspect of the invention of Post-It Notes was that it involved a number of major technological hurdles. One was how to neatly stack sticky slips of paper.  (Try it, it’s no small challenge.) 3M Scientist Art Fry knew the problem needed to be solved but lacked company support to pursue it. So he designed the manufacturing prototype on his own time in his basement…a technology that 3M still considers a trade secret.

To turn this connection around, it’s also true that people who are predominantly extrinsically motivated tend to be less creative. Someone doing a task primarily for some external reward is less likely to do that work creatively than someone doing it for the personal satisfaction.

That’s not to say that creative people don’t need to be compensated. They expect to be treated fairly and they want to benefit from the fruits of their efforts. They will be understandably upset when they don’t. But things like recognition, creative freedom and time to pursue their passions are more likely to enhance their creative performance than some carrot on the end of a stick.

This is one of the best researched but least appreciated pieces of the whole innovation equation. It requires a total paradigm shift in the way companies think about motivating employees and what behaviors are valued. The old rules typical of command and control organizational systems don’t work. They do more harm than good. The recording industry has shown (albeit involuntarily) that all those lavish extrinsic rewards showered upon musical artists may have enhanced their lifestyle. But it had no impact on the quality or quantity of the collective creative musical output. It’s in the research.

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