Creative Impulses

WU, Junfeng | GONG, Yaping | SONG, Lynda Jiwen | ZHANG, Zhen

Dr Samuel Johnson, the celebrated 18th century British writer, is famously quoted as saying, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money."

While the seriousness of his words has been the subject of some debate down the centuries, the broader question of to what degree creativity comes from within, or is driven by external rewards, has long been an issue of even greater contention. And, given that economic success or failure is increasingly likely to be innovation-dependent, the pertinence of this question now stretches way beyond the artist’s studio and into the everyday workplace.

But how can the drivers of creativity be understood and nurtured? Existing theory and research suggest that both the desire to engage in an activity primarily for its own sake (intrinsic motivational orientation), or for some separate reward (extrinsic motivational orientation), serve important functions. While an individual’s intrinsic desire encourages a focus on the process of exploration and novelty, the extrinsic desire prompts him or her to concentrate on goal attainment and usefulness. Because creativity in real organizations involves novelty and usefulness and requires both exploration and goal attainment, it follows that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation orientation should work together synergistically to promote creativity.

Curiously, however, prior research has largely overlooked the interplay between the two orientations.

In their study, Yaping Gong, Junfeng Wu, Lynda Jiwen Song and Zhen Zhang, examined this interaction with regard to both radical creativity, which refers to ideas that substantially alter existing products, processes, or services, and incremental creativity, which offers minor modifications to the status quo. They expect that the two work together to promote personal creativity goal, the personal aspiration that one’s job output should be creative (i.e., novel and useful). Such personal creativity goal in turn promotes incremental and radical creativity.

The model the authors developed was tested using data collected from R&D employees in a large, Chinese, automobile design and manufacturing firm. In this business, both radical and incremental creativity were required. An example of an issue requiring radical creativity was the determination of the best way to integrate and synchronize the development of electronic components and their associated software. While, the adding of notched gears to two existing parts to make them easier to connect on the production line, was an idea for an incremental improvement.

Examples of the type of motivational orientations the researchers put to the 795 employees surveyed were: “What matters most to me is enjoying what I do” and “I am strongly motivated by the money I can earn”.

The professors’ study resulted in a number of interesting findings. First, some have previously held that extrinsic motivation reduces intrinsic motivation and therefore harms creativity. This study demonstrates that extrinsic motivational orientation strengthens the positive effect of intrinsic motivation orientation on creativity through fostering stronger personal creativity goal that emphasizes both novelty and usefulness. Second, personal creativity goal serves as a mechanism for translating the joint effects of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation orientations into both radical and incremental forms of creativity.

Finally, this study also shows that while there is a linear relationship between the strength of someone’s aspiration for creativity in their work, and their incremental creativity, this relationship plots in an inverted U-shaped for radical creativity. In other words, and perhaps most surprisingly of all, after a certain point, the more strongly an individual embraces creativity goal, the less radically creative he or she becomes.

GONG, Yaping

Fung Term Professor of Management, Head, Chair Professor