Why deadlines impede innovation

It’s almost impossible to come up with really innovative things when you have a deadline and schedule.

It is no secret that constraints drive innovation. But what about deadlines? Deadlines, when managed well, can be a motivation–but when abused, can set you back. Here are a few things to consider before jumping on the “deadlines are imperative” bandwagon:

There are many ways to skin a cat

I love watching Animal Planet because I get to learn about how animals live and survive in the wild. One of the key lessons for me, which applies to the business world and life in general, is this: there are many ways to kill.

No two species kill the same way. Sure, tigers and lions may kill their prey by grabbing them with their huge paws and then biting them in the throat. But to get to that point they behave completely different!

Society, academics, analysts, bean counters are obsessed with finding a predictable and repeatable recipe for success; that includes innovation. Rather, there are many ways to skin a cat. Just like there is no  single technology that will ever solve everything, there isn’t a single creative framework/technique that will deliver a breakthrough idea.

Attitude and perspective, not process gets us on the right state of mind. And when it comes to deadlines, there are many theories…

An article in the Wall Street Journal says that deadlines don’t focus our minds but instead limits our thinking and can lead to much worse decision making:

“The research shows us that the more stressful a deadline is, the less open you are to other ways of approaching the problem,” says Dr. Boyatzis, a professor in the departments of organizational behavior, psychology and cognitive science at Case Western Reserve University. “The very moments when in organizations we want people to think outside the box, they can’t even see the box.”

There isn’t a whole lot of context behind the research, but I will say this: it matters how the problem/challenge is stated, which influences how people perceive it.

So, what to do?

Ask yourself: where do you have your best ideas? I doubt it’s at the most stressful place in your day to day life: in your cubicle at work.

where do you have creative breakthroughs

Insights don’t come to us when we are stressed, rather when we are deeply focused on a task and when we are daydreaming. The latter we usually do while we’re driving, walking, taking a shower or just before we go to sleep. This means that if we want employees to get some perspective while in the workplace, a simple solution is to simply go for a walk. Research suggests that taking a short walk can boost your creative output by up to 60%. That’s probably because it exposes you to new stimulation, and forces you to consider your problems in new contexts.

Our proximity to nature or going outdoors also has a huge role in triggering some creative thoughts. At work this isn’t the case because we are usually being interrupted with calls, emails and endless meetings. When we’re sitting there at the computer, fingers poised over the keyboard, the ideas don’t come—but in a new and different setting, our minds unclench and the ideas flow.

Context matters

Most people and organizations can’t start with a blank slate, they need a box to focus their creative energies. These are the constraints of a challenge, and they work very well to help focus the mind. But, some are quick to immediately put deadlines, but if the mind isn’t focused then people will only think about the deadline; not the work.

They key is to let people work the challenge before putting any kind of deadline on it. People need time to let the challenge and it’s variables set in to gain any kind of insight!

I’ve been in situations where both deadlines have driven innovation and where they haven’t mattered. But the one thing that has mattered is enthusiasm. I’m a big believer that lack of inspiration inhibits creative ideas. If people are not fired up about the work they are doing, if their hearts and minds are elsewhere, they will not go above and beyond the call of duty.

Inspiration can be personal or externally triggered. But if the context doesn’t doesn’t take these variables into account, it doesn’t matter what one does. Also, I’m a big believer in getting the product/service right, not just shipping something because there is a deadline. I’m more than willing to ignore the deadline if I don’t believe we”re doing to deliver on what we set out to do.

I have a theory, most workplaces are filled with deadlines. But they are not conducive to creative thought precisely because everything is about being efficient. Having time for reflection, as opposed to being watched over, needs to be an imperative.

Also, you may have the pretties and most advanced looking workplace in the world but I guarantee you that won’t immediately translate into innovation. A great looking place may inspire people to come to work, but the place itself has nothing to do with the behaviors that drive innovation: freedom, support and challenge.

Those drivers are a result of a culture that puts as much emphasis on getting it right than it does on being driven by deadlines.

Bottom line: Principles, not deadlines drive innovation. Have deadlines, but don’t think that because you have them that it will automatically trigger everyone’s creative juices. Before setting deadlines, make sure everyone understands what exactly you are trying to do, let them work the challenge first and then put a deadline on it.

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