The 3 Keys to Organizational Creativity

Last Updated Nov 18, 2010 10:26 AM EST

Yeah, yeah, we've heard countless stories about how brainiacs such as Alan Kay at the Palo Alto Research Center dreamed up laser printing, the moused-based graphical user interface, and basic networking. But what made PARC people so good at what they did? Can we learn from how they went about their business?

Teresa Amabile is probably Harvard Business School's leading authority on creativity, writing numerous groundbreaking studies on how it works, what is needed to foster it and what kills it. Turns out she was studying at Stanford, a mile down the road from PARC, in the mid 1970s, coming to know the key characters.

Writing on, Amabile lists the three keys to fostering creatvity practiced at PARC.

  1. Smart people who think differently. "The first threat to business creativity is our endangered education system, with its downward trends in science and math, and its increasingly narrow focus on basic subjects. The four dozen people working at PARC were really smart, with two important kinds of smarts. First, they had deep expertise -- in computer science, optical science, and system dynamics, as well as broad acquaintance with seemingly unrelated fields... Second, the PARC inventors had creative smarts. Rather than getting trapped by what was already inside their heads, they voraciously consumed new information and combined it in ways no one had previously imagined."
  2. Passionate engagement. "My research has shown that people are most creative when they are on a mission, intrinsically motivated by a love for what they are doing. Robert Bauer and his colleagues found immense interest, enjoyment, satisfaction, and challenge in 'dreaming, proving and making things that had never been done before.' Indulging their passion was so exciting, and so much fun, that they worked their tails off."
  3. A creative atmosphere. "Like all great organizational cultures, this one started with a bold vision. PARC's founder, George Pake, was out to create 'the office of the future.' He and Bob Taylor, head of PARC's Computer Science Laboratory, built a near-perfect work environment for creativity: freedom to pursue passions, challenging goals, collaborative norms, sufficient time to really think, and the resources people needed to follow their dreams. Even the smartest, most passionate people won't thrive in -- or will soon abandon -- a work environment that stifles them. Most people who got into PARC never wanted to leave."
Amabile says creativity is under threat, as economy-crushed companies stretch fewer employees to cover ever more work. "Creativity depends on the right people working in the right environment. Too often these days, the people come ill-equipped, and their work environments stink."

Does your company provide the right ingredients to foster creativity? What would you change about how your organization supports creative people?

(Photo by Flickr user raneko, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.