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How to Access Your Own Spirit of Entrepreneurship

Business creativity and spirituality both require listening and tapping into our deeper concerns. Both flourish with a heartfelt desire to improve our capacity to serve others.

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Illustration Credit: Canace

Where facts are thin, superstitions flourish, even in allegedly rational activities like business. Consider the risk-loving, money-driven entrepreneur, the familiar John Wayne myth of macho capitalism that permeated the cultures of Enron and WorldCom and the entire mortgage banking business before the crash. Forty years ago, Harvard’s late, great David McClelland and dozens of protégés around the world put the lie to the risk-lover stereotype. In hundreds of experiments, they found that successful entrepreneurs hate risk like the devil, as do other true innovators. That’s why they talk about risk so much and get all the feedback possible on how to minimize it—and thus achieve their driving dream.

The myth that entrepreneurs are motivated by greed is even harder to dig out of capitalism’s conventional economic theology. When you talk incentives in business, the dogma remains dollars. Yet McClelland demonstrated again and again that entrepreneurial people do not perform better when they are offered economic incentives. In fact, they do worse. “It is the challenge of the job itself that rewards the achiever people,” he wrote. He found that entrepreneurs who do get rich from their efforts tend to be surprised because it wasn’t really the goal of their enterprise.

McClelland and his followers developed rigorous measures of what really motivates achievement, what he called the need to achieve, or N-Ach, that energizes artists as well as creative entrepreneurs.

His measures employed standard images. One favorite is of two women in lab coats, one of them working with beakers. Each test-taker writes a few paragraphs telling what’s going on. If the story tells of one woman bossing the other, the test-taker tends to be power-driven, either for social power (more admirable) or personal power (more apt to be noxious). If it’s two friends talking about a good time together, it’s need for affiliation. If the story tells of colleagues working toward an important accomplishment, it’s need for achievement. McClelland taught start-up CEOs to think in such images. He also measured such images in pop culture and art to measure which cultures were moving into a hotter entrepreneurial phase and thus more productive economies.

McClelland, whose work would become a backbone of research into emotional intelligence, took his entrepreneurial training to India as a 10-day course for small-business men. Compared with a matched sample that did not take the course, those who had learned to think in achiever images started four times as many new businesses over the next two years, invested twice as much new capital, and created twice as many new jobs.

The myth of the money-hungry risk lover is part of a much larger, even more powerful illusion by which business leaders blind themselves to normal, everyday creativity of men and women at all levels. Creativity is expected to be weird, different, dangerous, not for mere mortals. It’s a myth that’s hard to beat because it goes so far back. The Old Testament frowns on man for biting into the apple of knowledge and later, at Babel, for presuming to create his own environment. The Greek gods tortured one of their own, Prometheus, for daring to bootleg creative tools and fire to mere mortals. Small wonder that centuries of poets and painters felt obliged to beg for divine inspiration from fickle little goddesses, the Muses.

Around World War II, the myth took on the flavor of historical reality with Arnold Toynbee’s popular theory that most people don’t count because “creative minorities” shape history. From there, mainstream psychology focused for years on the search for personality traits, perhaps inherited, among an inspired few people certified as “creative.”

The most comprehensive summary of this conventional confusion was published about a decade ago in the Harvard Business Review by Stanford professor Robert I. Sutton. In “Weird Rules of Creativity,” Sutton argued that creative environments are “remarkably inefficient and often annoying places to work.” He went on into never-never land: “Managing for creativity means placing bets on ideas without much heed to their projected return on investment. It means ignoring what has worked before. It means taking perfectly happy people and goading them into fights among themselves. Good creativity management means hiring the candidate you have a gut feeling against. And, as for those people who stick their fingers in their ears and chant, ‘I’m not listening, I’m not listening,’ when customers are making suggestions? It means praising and promoting them.” That’s all nonsense, buried in blinding beliefs. But such is the power of convenient illusion.

Ordinary Innovators, Driven by Fun and Fascination

The very word “creative” became so polluted that when we set out to build teams to develop new products at Procter & Gamble, we tried to abandon the word entirely. Instead, we put our trust in “ordinary innovators.”

Psychologist Teresa Amabile gave our work the grounding it needed. She began at Brandeis University to build upon a body of research into motivation. The extrinsic motives triggered by money incentives and social approval, or the fear of losing them, served the Industrial Revolution’s need for regiments of workers to do the same things over and over. More money will speed up an assembly line. But people don’t do something original, Amabile found, unless their primary motives are intrinsic—the interest and joy of the work itself, often in service to others. Her findings clicked with McClelland’s as well as with years of our own struggles among innovators and entrepreneurs.

Brushing right past the creative-elite dogmas, Amabile herself sounded an audacious call to humility: “Although laypeople and creativity theorists often make the assumption that individual creativity depends primarily on talent, there is considerable evidence that hard work and intrinsic motivation—which can be supported or undermined by social environment (and so by bosses)—also play central roles.” Under the right conditions, most of us have creative genius regarding things we care about.

Our Corporate New Ventures teams at Procter & Gamble begged Amabile to let us be guinea pigs in her 26-company database. Her central concept turns typical top-down management control on its head. At CNV, the boss began not by assigning people to jobs already defined but by searching instead for each person’s deepest interests and driving passions. All CNV members came in as volunteers. Each initiated a new product team or joined one. They came at their previous salaries and were given no extra financial incentive for success. The one big carrot was the intrinsic pleasure of originating something useful, and when a fast-track woman passed up the prestigious job of Tide detergent brand manager to join CNV, we knew we were onto something.

Tapping 30-something years of creativity research in management and psychology (much of it leading to dead ends), we worked down through layers of New Age assumptions endemic to new product teams. We abandoned their blinding beliefs in brainstorming, focus groups, off-site inspirational junkets, the incremental advances of experts, and most of the “weird rules” of orthodoxy in the creativity cults of so many companies. Creativity and innovation seemed to us more like the natural output of diverse groups who figure out how best to combine their knowledge and talents in common work.

We took nothing for granted. Designing our own office space for easy flow of information and ideas—both scientific and pop journals in coffee areas and both johns—we were startled at the energy welling up among two dozen men and women who went into business with their favorite product ideas. After 15 years of launching no categorically new products, P&G jump-started a new era of creativity in the 164-year-old company. Over the next four years, P&G new-ventures teams, not just CNV, launched a third of all new U.S. packaged products with yearly sales above $100 million. 

Redeeming Capitalism

What all these studies add up to is an overwhelming correlation between creativity and spirituality. Both require listening, tapping into our deeper concerns with the world around us. Both flourish with a heartfelt desire to improve our capacity to serve others. And both can be altruistic.

As our country reels from its era of infectious greed, it’s handy to notice McClelland’s conclusions from years of research into entrepreneurs: “One of the peculiar ironies of history is that (Karl) Marx won his case with his sworn enemies, the capitalists, who have accepted his charge that they work only for self-interest, the profit motive. I’m an academic, and nothing has surprised me more than to find myself trying to rescue the businessman from the academic trash heap, dust him off, and offer him intellectual respectability.” In other words, there is no inherent contradiction between capitalism and spirituality. Where one appears, capitalism has betrayed its primary function of service through innovation.

When Creativity Is Under the Gun, It Usually Gets Killed

“Although time pressure may drive people to work more and get more done, and may even make them feel more creative, it actually causes them, in general, to think less creatively,” reports Harvard Business School psychologist Teresa Amabile. Her study, published in the Harvard Business Review, reviewed 9,000 daily diary entries from 177 employees in seven U.S. companies. The study subjects were highly educated people recognized as the “creative lifeblood” of their companies. Each day they were asked to fill out an email questionnaire that Amabile and her colleagues coded to derive a daily measure of creative thinking.

Overall, Amabile’s data show that American knowledge workers feel “overworked, fragmented, and burned out.” The biggest drop in creativity occurred when time pressure was highest—and such high pressure created a low-creativity “hangover” that lingered for two days afterward. Surprisingly, the people involved seem to be unaware of the phenomenon. In fact, they tended to think that increased pressure enhanced their creativity.

Beyond the simple answer that pressure tends to stifle creativity is the obvious fact that both context and environment matter. Actual emergencies can stimulate creativity, while total lack of time pressure can reduce concentration. So Amabile’s team tried to tease out the nuances of situations that enhance creativity.

Low Time-Pressure Creativity: People tend to be most creative when they feel they are on an expedition, when they are exploring ideas rather than identifying problems, and when they are collaborating with one person rather than with a group. Under low time pressure, creative thinking tends not to happen if people feel that they are on autopilot, when they receive little encouragement to be original, when they have many group meetings, and when they engage in less collaborative work overall.

High Time-Pressure Creativity: Creativity rises when people feel they are on a mission, when their time is protected, when they feel they are doing important work, and when they are identifying problems or exploring ideas. Under high pressure, creative thinking occurs less when people feel like they are on a treadmill, when their day is fragmented, when they don’t consider the work important, when called into many group meetings, and when they experience last-minute changes in their plans or schedules.

Six Thoughts for Ordinary Innovators

Intuition comes not from a eureka flash but from a miner’s lamp. Or, as the great management guru Peter Drucker put it, “Creativity is an activity, not a gift.” If you want to keep your group at its creative best, consider these six ideas.

1. Thinking “outside the box” assumes that there is a box. Believing that creativity is some weird kind of thinking blinds people to the seasoned insights that help them begin to glimpse unlikely new connections between different technologies, different disciplines.

2. Information is energy. It is useless unless it flows around and combines with other information. When turf wars lock knowledge into separate “silos” such as university departments or company divisions, innovation stagnates.

3. Innovation—like civilization—blossoms on trade routes. When different cultures mix their insights, art flourishes and knowledge makes magic.

4. Keep out of Skunk Works. Remembering the success of Lockheed’s super-secret “Skunk Works” (a name borrowed from Li’l Abner) during and after World War II, corporations love to create their own teams of certified creative geniuses who are carefully insulated from the outside world. The problem is that these “creatives” tend to be cut off from good information—such as the needs of consumers.

5. Women and men create better together. Data from a review of initial public offerings during the high-flying 1990s is clear: when women made up at least 20 percent of a company’s executive team, share prices were 28 percent higher and earnings were 281 percent higher than at all-male companies. Synergy of the sexes pays off.

6. Look for common work, which emerges when people are able to elevate mission above ego. That means not letting pride or selfish concerns corrupt your contribution. Don’t let your ego block your insight or blind you to someone else’s.


T George Harris was editor in chief of Psychology Today, American Health, Harvard Business Review, and Spirituality & Health. He also helped launch the website beliefnet.com, as well as products for Procter & Gamble. He died in October 2013. This article is dedicated to a lifelong innovator.


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