Crunch Time - The Death of Creativity

Crunch time: with a deadline looming, we just have to power through until we’re done. Is this really the best way to run a project, and more importantly, are people inspired to do their best work?

This is the seventh of a twelve-part series covering the sessions from Calibrate, an engineering leadership conference held September, 2015 in San Francisco.

Ryan Tang, of Pivotal Labs, presented three case studies to help the audience at Calibrate understand the effects of crunch time on a team’s productivity and creativity. The tone of the talk was light hearted and humorous, but the message was clear. Teams under pressure are typically the least creative and worst performing.

A Success Story

It’s not all bad news, crunch time is useful in certain situations. Tang’s first case study involved convincing his 4-year-old son to get dressed in the morning. In this case, a little time pressure lead to some last minute heroics.

If the problem is simple, or simply a matter of manual labor, a time constraint can get the job done. Unfortunately, the kinds of problems engineering teams typically face don’t fall into either of these categories. We expect our teams to come up creative solutions to hard problems.

The Creative Process

Tang’s next case study involved giving teams 18 minutes to build a tower using only uncooked spaghetti, tape, and string to support a marshmallow. Surprisingly, groups of recent business school graduates don’t perform as well as groups of recent kindergarten graduates in this challenge.

In this case, the difference comes down to process. The business school graduates tended to plan the best possible structure up front and typically ran out of time. On the other hand, the kindergarten graduates tended to follow a more iterative process. A series of small wins over the course of 18 minutes resulted in better results.

Other External Motivators

If time constraints don’t lead to better work, how about other external motivators? Surely a monetary reward will inspire a team. As you might expect, a financial motivator also leads to a decrease in performance. As shown in Tang’s “Candle Problem” case study, combining crunch time with a financial incentive results in the worst performance of all. Offering a prize for the fastest solution resulted in a slower performance compared to teams under no pressure.

It’s well worth your time to check out the video of Ryan Tang’s full talk. He combines research and insights with an enjoyable delivery, and finishes up with a few ideas for building a workplace that inspires better work and fosters creativity.