Incentives and breaks promote high creativity production

idea_analysis-blackboard-board-355952Giving employees incentives to come up with as many ideas as possible – regardless of quality – and then having them step away from the project for a while has a positive effect on creative insights, according to a new study.

The study, carried out by researchers from the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin and the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was published in the March 2019 issue of the Accounting Review.

Steven Kachelmeier, the Randal B. McDonald Chair in Accounting at Texas McCombs and co-author of the study, said: “Creativity is not instantaneous, but if incentives promote enough ideas as seeds for thought, creativity eventually emerges.”

The study (citation below) was comprised of two experiments.

In the first experiment participants were asked to create rebus puzzles. Some of the participants were paid based on the number of ideas they generated, others for ideas that met a standard for creativity, and the rest received a fixed wage of $25 regardless of the quantity or quality of their puzzle ideas.

At the time the incentives were initially applied none of the incentivized groups significantly outperformed those who received a fixed pay in terms of high creativity production.

However, in a second-stage creativity task conducted 10 days later, the pay-for-quantity group had “a distinct creativity advantage,” outperforming the other groups.

The researchers then carried out a second experiment with a much shorter incubation period.

After participants completed their first-stage task they were taken on a quiet 20-minute walk around campus before completing the second-stage task.

In the second experiment the pay-for-quantity group once again produced more and better puzzles in the second-stage task.

“You need to rest, take a break and detach yourself — even if that detachment is just 20 minutes,” Kachelmeier said.

“The recipe for creativity is try — and get frustrated because it’s not going to happen. Relax, sit back, and then it happens.”


“Incentivizing the Creative Process: From Initial Quantity to Eventual Creativity,” by Steven J. Kachelmeier, Laura W. Wang and Michael G. Williamson is published in the March 2019 issue of the Accounting Review.