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Creativity and Constraints: Exploring the Role of Constraints in the Creative Processes of Research and Development Teams

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Research on creativity in organizations has revealed a variety of important paradoxes that seem fundamental to the nature of creativity itself. One such paradox is the tension between freedom and constraint in the creative process. Where some theorists have described the ideal creative process as unstructured, open-ended, and free of external limitations, others have found that creative individuals and teams can benefit from constraints. The purpose of this study is to make sense of this tension in the literature by investigating the ways in which constraints both inhibit and enhance work team creativity. Based on inductive field research with four research and development teams in a multinational corporation known for innovation, this study addresses the research questions: (a) What are the key constraints experienced by R&D teams and what impact do these have on team creativity?, and (b) Under what conditions do constraints inhibit or enhance R&D team creativity? This research uncovered a variety of salient constraints that can be organized into two broad categories: process constraints and product constraints. While process and product constraints were found to have differential impacts on team creativity, this study also revealed that under different circumstances, these constraints affected team creativity differently. Specifically, enduring team dynamics patterns, characterized as enabling dynamics and disabling dynamics, played a vital role in how teams interpreted and responded to constraints, and therefore whether constraints inhibited or enhanced team creativity. Teams experiencing the right kinds of constraints in the right environments, and which saw opportunity in constraints, benefitted creatively from them. The results of this research challenge the assumption that constraints kill creativity, demonstrating instead that for teams able to accept and embrace them, there is freedom in constraint.
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Organization Studies
2014, Vol. 35(4) 551 –585
© The Author(s) 2014
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DOI: 10.1177/0170840613517600
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Creativity and Constraints:
Exploring the Role of Constraints
in the Creative Processes of
Research and Development Teams
Brent D. Rosso
Montana State University, USA
Abstract
Research on creativity in organizations has revealed a variety of important paradoxes that seem fundamental
to the nature of creativity itself. One such paradox is the tension between freedom and constraint in the
creative process. Where some theorists have described the ideal creative process as unstructured, open-
ended, and free of external limitations, others have found that creative individuals and teams can benefit
from constraints. The purpose of this study is to make sense of this tension in the literature by investigating
the ways in which constraints both inhibit and enhance work team creativity. Based on inductive field
research with four research and development teams in a multinational corporation known for innovation,
this study addresses the research questions: (a) What are the key constraints experienced by R&D teams
and what impact do these have on team creativity?, and (b) Under what conditions do constraints inhibit
or enhance R&D team creativity? This research uncovered a variety of salient constraints that can be
organized into two broad categories: process constraints and product constraints. While process and
product constraints were found to have differential impacts on team creativity, this study also revealed that
under different circumstances, these constraints affected team creativity differently. Specifically, enduring
team dynamics patterns, characterized as enabling dynamics and disabling dynamics, played a vital role
in how teams interpreted and responded to constraints, and therefore whether constraints inhibited or
enhanced team creativity. Teams experiencing the right kinds of constraints in the right environments,
and which saw opportunity in constraints, benefitted creatively from them. The results of this research
challenge the assumption that constraints kill creativity, demonstrating instead that for teams able to accept
and embrace them, there is freedom in constraint.
Keywords
constraint, creativity, innovation, teams and teamwork
Corresponding author:
Brent D. Rosso, Assistant Professor of Management, College of Business, Montana State University, 327 Reid Hall, PO
Box 173030, Bozeman, MT 59717–3040, USA.
Email: brent.rosso@montana.edu
517600OSS0010.1177/0170840613517600Organization StudiesRosso
research-article2014
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552 Organization Studies 35(4)
Research on creativity in organizations has revealed a variety of important paradoxes (George,
2008), which some have argued are fundamental to the nature of creativity itself (Csikszentmihalyi,
1997). One such paradox is the tension between freedom and constraint in the creative process. On
one hand, theorists have historically described the ideal creative process as unstructured, open-
ended, and free of external limitations, providing creators with ample time, resources, and space to
play with ideas (Amabile, 1988, 1996; Andrews & Smith, 1996; Shalley, Zhou, & Oldham, 2004).
This perspective suggests that constraints kill creativity by inhibiting intrinsic motivation and stim-
ulating surface-level cognition.
On the other hand, a growing array of emerging research in a diverse set of literatures has
revealed that creative individuals and teams can benefit from various constraints, including time,
financial, and processual constraints (e.g. Baer & Oldham, 2006; Gilson, Mathieu, Shalley, &
Ruddy, 2005; Hargadon & Sutton, 1996; Moreau & Dahl, 2005; Stokes, 2006; Weiss, Hoegl, &
Gibbert, 2012). These recent findings are perhaps not so surprising in light of the experiences of
research and development (R&D) teams and other creative professionals, who have noted the value
of constraints for enhancing creativity (e.g. Mayer, 2006; Stokes, 2006; Tharp, 2003).
This evidence suggests that constraints can help enhance creativity in teams, at least in appro-
priate environments or proportions. However, it remains unclear under what specific circumstances
constraints will inhibit or enhance team creativity. In addition, we know little about which con-
straints are most salient to R&D teams, and what impact these have on team creativity. The purpose
of this study is to fill these gaps by answering two questions: (a) What are the key constraints
experienced by R&D teams and what impact do these have on team creativity?, and (b) Under what
conditions do constraints inhibit or enhance R&D team creativity?
This study contributes to the literature on creativity in organizations in three key ways. First, I
aim to make sense of seemingly paradoxical research findings by developing a more holistic under-
standing of the role of constraints in R&D team creativity. Prior research on constraints has focused
on singular, externally imposed constraints particularly time and resource constraints – rather
than looking systematically or simultaneously at a variety of constraints. In the present research, I
sought to redress this gap by taking an open-ended approach to the role constraints play in the crea-
tive processes of R&D teams, including understanding what teams themselves define as constraints
and how they are experienced. By studying multiple constraints simultaneously, I am also able to
investigate how various constraints interact with each other to operate on creativity.
Second, this study contributes to the literature by examining the role group dynamics play in
whether constraints inhibit or enhance team-level creativity. Although the innovation and new
product development literatures have begun to examine the impact of constraints on innovation
team performance at later stages of the innovation chain (Hoegl, Gibbert, & Mazursky, 2008;
Weiss et al., 2012; West, 2002), we know little about the role constraints play in the early-stage
creativity of R&D teams because prior research has focused on team performance outcomes like
project efficiency and product quality. In addition, like most research on creativity in organiza-
tions, very little research on constraints has investigated their consequences for creativity at the
team level. Most of the extant research in the creativity literature emphasizes the internal cognitive
processes of individuals over group processes and dynamics (George, 2008; Shalley et al., 2004).
However, organizations frequently turn to work teams to generate and develop the creative solu-
tions that give them competitive advantage (Kurtzberg, 2005), and the processes underlying team-
level creativity are likely to differ in significant ways from those underlying individual-level
creativity (Hargadon & Bechky, 2006; Kurtzberg & Amabile, 2001; Paulus & Nijstad, 2003).
Although numerous calls have been made for more research on creativity at the group level (e.g.
Amabile, 1988, 1996; George, 2008; Shalley et al., 2004), there remains a dearth of scholarship in
this area. With some exceptions (e.g. Hoegl & Gemuenden, 2001; Hoegl et al., 2008; Hoegl &
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Rosso 553
Parboteeah, 2003; Hoegl & Parboteeah, 2007; Sethi & Nicholson, 2001; West & Sacramento,
2012), this is true of the innovation literature as well, which has primarily emphasized the indi-
vidual and organizational levels of analysis.
Third, I contribute to the literature by examining the role of constraints in team creativity
through an in-depth investigation of real R&D teams in a field setting where creativity is vital to
organizational success. Ironically, a large portion of the research on creativity in organizations has
been conducted in laboratory settings, and with temporarily fabricated teams, rather than in field
studies of ongoing project teams in real organizations (Drazin, Glynn, & Kazanjian, 1999; George,
2008; Shalley et al., 2004). This is also true of the research on constraints and creativity, and in the
product innovation literature as well (Weiss et al., 2012). Although laboratory and survey methods
are helpful for establishing causal relationships, they may not necessarily capture the realities and
complexities of creativity in organizations, particularly the role of team dynamics. By undertaking
inductive field research with real R&D teams over time, I am able to build theory about constraints
and creativity steeped squarely in the organizational context.
Constraints and Creativity
Creativity is defined as the production of ideas or solutions that are novel and useful (Amabile,
1988, 1996). In order for ideas or solutions to be considered creative in an organizational setting,
they must be both new and potentially valuable to the organization (George, 2008). Creativity is a
key precursor to innovation, which is the successful implementation of creative ideas (Amabile,
1996; Kurtzberg, 2005; West, 1997, 2002). Creativity thus provides a critical source of competitive
advantage and lasting stakeholder value vital to the success of organizations relying on innovative
products and technologies (George, 2008).
The literature on creativity in organizations has been heavily influenced by Amabile’s (1988)
componential model of creativity, which suggests that intrinsic motivation – the drive to engage in
an activity because it is inherently interesting or involving is essential to creative output (Amabile,
1988, 1996). A key conclusion from this theory, originally developed through the study of indi-
vidual creative exemplars and children, is that intrinsic motivation, and therefore creativity, is
maximized by freedom and inhibited by constraints. Proponents of this perspective argue that
when external constraints are placed on the creative process, creators lose intrinsic motivation and
fall back on routines and surface-level thinking, which kill creativity (Amabile, Hadley, & Kramer,
2002; Andrews & Smith, 1996).
External constraints, defined as factors introduced by the social environment that are intended
to control an individual’s engagement in a task (Amabile, 1988, 1996) have a decidedly negative
connotation in this tradition. This definition emphasizes controlling aspects of constraints, where
constraints are dictated externally with little agency given to the actor upon whom the constraints
are imposed. In the present study, for the sake of remaining more neutral about the nature and
impact of constraints, I define constraint broadly, as a state of being restricted, limited, or confined
within prescribed bounds. This definition allows for the possibility that constraints may arise inter-
nally as well as externally, and may have positive as well as negative connotations and conse-
quences for R&D teams.
Constraints as inhibitors of creativity
Although the ‘intrinsic motivation perspective’ has been the dominant theoretical paradigm in the
literature on constraints and creativity, there has been relatively limited empirical research on the
topic. Of the current research examining the impact of constraints on creativity, most has focused
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554 Organization Studies 35(4)
on time constraints. The presence of time pressures or production goals has typically been described
as a negative influence on creativity because it discourages exploration and increases reliance on
status quo approaches (Amabile, 1996). Researchers have argued that good creativity takes time
(Gruber & Davis, 1988) and that creators need ample time and space to think creatively, suspend
judgment, and play with ideas (Amabile & Gryskiewicz, 1987; Isaksen, Lauer, Ekvall, & Britz,
2001). Amabile, Hadley, and Kramer (2002) found support for this premise in a longitudinal study
of creative professionals, as has research on marketing professionals (Andrews & Smith, 1996) and
psychological research on individual creativity in a group task (Kelly & McGrath, 1985).
Other research has examined the impact of financial and other resource constraints on creativity,
primarily at the individual level. This work suggests that creators need to feel comfortable and
provided with sufficient resources in order to be maximally creative (e.g. Amabile, 1988; Amabile
& Gryskiewicz, 1987; Amabile et al., 1996; Katz & Allen, 1988). The innovation literature has also
championed this perspective, with theorists largely arguing that innovation necessarily requires
financial resource slack (Camison-Zornoza, Lapiedra-Alcami, Segarra-Cipres, & Boronat-Navarro,
2004; Damanpour, 1991), and that financial constraints impair innovation either directly or through
innovation teams blaming their constraints for taking an easier or less novel path.
Constraints as enablers of creativity
There is also mounting research evidence suggesting that the creative performance of individu-
als and teams can actually benefit from constraints. Here again, most research in the creativity
literature has focused on time constraints. Andrews and Farris (1972) found positive, significant
relations between scientists’ experienced time pressure and their creativity. More recently, West
(2002) proposed and Baer and Oldham (2006) found a curvilinear relationship between time
pressure and individual creativity, where moderate levels of time pressure had positive effects on
creativity. Amabile and colleagues (2002) found similar effects in a longitudinal study, as did
Ohly, Sonnentag, and Pluntke (2006), who found a curvilinear relationship between time pres-
sure and creativity after controlling for the effects of control variables and job characteristics.
Hennessey and Amabile (2010) conclude that while the effects of time pressure on creativity are
generally negative, creativity might be enhanced by time pressure if creators are protected from
distractions, and if they feel as if they are on a mission. They contend, however, that these occa-
sions are rare.
Research on the impact of resource constraints on creativity reveals similar conclusions.
Scholars have argued that an abundance of material resources actually has a deadening effect on
creativity by making creators too comfortable (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997), and that not having every
resource readily at hand may stretch employees to find more innovative approaches and solutions
(Shalley & Gilson, 2004). The innovation literature has explored resource constraints in greater
depth. Recent research finds that financial resource scarcity can stimulate and facilitate innovation
performance at the individual (Baker & Nelson, 2005; Garud & Karnoe, 2003), team (Hoegl et al.,
2008; Weiss et al., 2012), and organizational levels (Katila & Shane, 2005; Mishina, Pollock, &
Porac, 2004; Mone, McKinley, & Barker, 1998). Laboratory research in the marketing literature
finds similar results, revealing that individuals are actually more innovative in solving problems
when given fewer resources to work with (Moreau & Dahl, 2005). New product development
researchers have also begun to explore the role of team-level moderators in how financial resource
constraints affect innovation project performance. Weiss, Hoegl, and Gibbert (2012) found that a
strong team climate for innovation helps enable project teams to achieve more innovative perfor-
mance under conditions of financial constraint. This work, along with Hoegl and colleagues’
(2008) and West’s (2002, 2012) earlier theoretical work, offers a vital step forward in
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understanding how the team environment and dynamics impact whether those teams benefit or
suffer from constraints.
Finally, recent research on group-level creativity suggests that constraints such as standardized
processes and routines (e.g. institutionalized problem-solving or brainstorming methods) can posi-
tively impact creativity, given a supportive organizational environment for innovation (e.g.
Hargadon & Sutton, 1996; Gilson et al., 2005). For example, Gilson and colleagues (2005) found
that teams with standardized routines and practices in place, in addition to being empowered by
their organization to be creative, were more creative than teams who were empowered to be crea-
tive but lacked standardization. Indeed, creative teams have even been shown to actively place
constraints on themselves as a way of structuring or bounding their work in ways that enhance their
creativity (e.g. Hargadon & Sutton, 1996; Stokes, 2006). Theorists have argued that such con-
straints are particularly beneficial to team creativity at the early stages of the creative process (i.e.
idea generation and selection), because they provide common structures, expectations, and norms
for the team creative process (DeRue & Rosso, 2009).
In sum, empirical research on the impact of constraints on creativity suggests that constraints do
not necessarily impede, and may even enhance creativity, depending on how they are managed and
the environment in which they occur. However, there has been limited empirical work overall, and
it remains unclear whether all constraints operate similarly on team creativity and under what con-
ditions constraints will inhibit or enhance team creativity. The following section details the induc-
tive research strategy used to examine these questions.
Research Design and Methods
Given the exploratory nature of the research questions of this study, I conducted field research in
an organizational setting with real R&D teams engaged in ongoing creative projects. R&D teams
provide an ideal opportunity to study these questions, because they face a variety of salient con-
straints and are relied upon by their organizations to generate creative solutions that will drive
product innovation further down the development pipeline. Creativity is therefore not only essen-
tial to the success of R&D teams, and an expected part of their work, but it is also central to the
long-term viability of their organizations. Inductive, qualitative strategies are particularly helpful
for exploratory research of this kind, which aims to gather ‘thick, rich descriptions’ (Geertz, 1973,
p. 3) for the purpose of building theory rather than testing it (Glaser & Strauss, 1967).
Research context
In order to build a strong understanding of which constraints are salient to R&D teams and how
they affect team creativity, I chose an organization well-known for innovation, which I refer to as
Gigantech. Gigantech is a multinational Fortune 500 corporation with a superior reputation and
identity around creativity and innovation. Gigantech is headquartered in the United States and
employs 75,000 people across more than 65 countries. The company produces over 55,000 prod-
ucts for an extensive range of markets, including nanotechnology, healthcare, electronics, optics,
and software, driving US$27 billion in global sales last year. Much of the organization’s success
has been attributed to its ability to develop groundbreaking creative products that meet customer
and market needs. Gigantech’s commitment to continual innovation is underscored by its invest-
ment of more than US$1 billion annually in R&D. The R&D function employs over 6,700 top
scientists and engineers from diverse disciplinary backgrounds, and is organized into one corporate
research laboratory and several divisional product development laboratories. Gigantech has built a
broad base of fundamental technologies in the corporate labs, from which hundreds of new
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products are developed each year in the product development labs. Virtually all R&D is done in
project teams at Gigantech, where R&D professionals are likely to be engaged in two to three key
projects at a given time.
Sample
I used a purposive sample in this study, as consistent with guidelines for rigorous inductive field
research aiming to build theory (Cresswell, 1994; Marshall & Rossman, 1999 [1989]). My sample
consisted of four R&D project teams from Gigantech’s corporate research laboratories, selected by
the organization for variance in (a) the nature of the project and its potential applications, (b) the
research laboratories of which team members were a part, (c) the size of the team, and (d) the phase
of the project. This was requested so as to maximize the diversity of the sample on dimensions that
could potentially be relevant to the research questions of the study. By studying these four teams,
I had the opportunity to collect richly descriptive data while increasing the probability of variation
in contexts and team processes that could be theoretically valuable. There are four distinct but
related laboratories within the corporate research lab, including Materials, Production, Analytics,
and Software laboratories. The corporate research lab (the context for the present study) is respon-
sible for the cutting-edge, front-end creative technology development that is later applied in the
divisional product development labs’ product development efforts, where the tangible consumer
and business-to-business products are developed. The orientation for corporate lab R&D technolo-
gies is therefore longer-term, typically targeted to reach product introduction on average five years
in the future, although projects can vary from one year to 10 or more in outlook. The rest of the
organization depends on the corporate research labs for most of the groundbreaking core technolo-
gies and products that will feed product development – and, therefore, sales and revenue – for the
future. Thus, the corporate research labs are considered the creative heart of the organization.
Method
Given the nature of my research questions and my goal of constructing and elaborating theory,
inductive field research was an ideal research method (Lee, Mitchell, & Sablynski, 1999; Singleton
& Straits, 2005). Field research with creative teams in an organizational setting provides particu-
larly compelling data on my research questions for three key reasons: First, my research questions
were exploratory in nature, with the aim of building new knowledge in an area in which little the-
ory or research currently exists. Such lack of extant theory and research on a phenomenon provide
optimal conditions for inductive qualitative research, which offers richer and more dynamic
sources of data than do quantitative methodologies (Lee, 1999; Marshall & Rossman, 1999 [1989]).
Second, given my focus on creativity in work teams, the role of the organizational context has
important theoretical significance. Organizational creativity researchers have largely imported or
adapted theory from the psychological literature, the foundation of which was developed from
observations of individual artists, creative geniuses, and even children (Amabile, 1988, 1996).
Creativity in an organizational context is likely to unfold differently than creativity in these other
contexts, however – especially given the challenge for creative work teams to process diverse per-
spectives and converge around solutions. The richly descriptive data elicited by field research is
therefore well suited to preserve the natural order of things (Singleton & Straits, 2005) with respect
to the impact of constraints on R&D team creativity. Finally, researchers have tended to overlook
the processes by which creative outcomes are produced. Field research provides the opportunity to
examine more deeply the specific team processes through which constraints impact team
creativity.
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Data collection
Two main types of data were collected: semi-structured interviews and direct observation.
Semi-structured interviews. The most prominent sources of data were semi-structured interviews with
members of the R&D teams. In total, 34 interviews were conducted with members and leaders of four
R&D teams over the course of three months, totaling 42.50 hours. Twenty-seven of the interviews
were with formal members of the teams, and seven were with senior leaders overseeing the projects.
Interviews lasted an average of 1.25 hours each. Interview questions were poised at the team level and
focused on team experiences and behaviors in the course of the creative project. Specifically, questions
explored (a) the role of creativity in the team’s work, (b) the types of goals, needs, or problems for
which the team relied most on creativity, (c) the current state and dynamics of the team’s creative pro-
cess, (d) constraints the team was facing (as perceived/volunteered by the respondent, based on the
definition of constraint as a state of being restricted, limited, or confined within prescribed bounds),
and for each constraint volunteered: (e) where the constraint came from, (f) how typical the constraint
was, (g) the initial response of the team to the constraint, (h) how the team responded, (i) the impact of
the constraint on various dimensions of team behavior and functioning (e.g. goals, work processes,
motivation, interpersonal dynamics, mood, external behavior), (j) impact on team creativity processes
and performance, (k) response of leaders, and (l) contextual conditions of the team work environment
and organization (interview protocol available upon request). The respondent’s background and roles
and responsibilities in the organization and project team were discussed at the beginning of each inter-
view. All respondents were asked the same core questions, while leaving flexibility for probing ques-
tions and further exploration as typical to semi-structured interviews (Lee, 1999). All interviews were
audio recorded, transcribed, and double-checked for accuracy.
Direct observation. The second main source of data came from direct observation of the R&D teams
and their members (and their environments) as they went about their work. Given my role as an out-
sider to the organization, and my lack of technical expertise, my observations were conducted as a
non-participant observer (Lee, 1999). Team meetings and interactions were observed both in-person
and via telephone, including critical gate reviews (where constraints were often made salient to teams).
Scientists and engineers were also observed at work in their labs, and interviews routinely conducted
in respondents offices. In total, I conducted approximately 25 hours of formal observation, with many
more hours of informal observation, as I maintained an office space in a central building throughout
the study. During and/or following observations of each meeting, interaction, or conversation with
project teams or individual members, I wrote field notes describing my observations and reactions
(Lofland, 1971). These observations further fleshed out the core interview data to build a more com-
prehensive understanding of the environments, processes, and dynamics of the teams as they engaged
with their R&D projects. These data helped to elucidate the emergent themes from the interviews by
providing valuable situational context within which these findings were evaluated.
The four focal teams
A description of the four focal teams follows, including an overview of key project goals, mem-
bers, constraints faced, and basic team dynamics. Table 1 summarizes the key attributes of each
project and team.
Coatings team. The Coatings team was a large project team, formally organized by senior leaders
to complete a very high visibility project oriented around a groundbreaking new coating material
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558 Organization Studies 35(4)
with three unique properties. At the time of study, the team was in the early-to-mid stages of the
project, although there was tremendous pressure to develop the technology quickly. The timeline
for the project was set at six months, which is unusually fast in R&D at Gigantech. This aggressive
timeline was driven by the CEO’s desire to see the project outcome realized as quickly as possible,
due to tremendous market potential and competitive pressures. If realized, the technology could be
applied to a multitude of consumer and commercial product applications in many industries, and
generate potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. Due to the high priority nature of
the project, the organization had allocated nearly unlimited financial resources to the Coatings
project. As a result, the team had considerable freedom to spend whatever was necessary in order
to achieve their creative goals, yet time pressure was great. Symbolic of the Coatings project’s
significance, leaders had likened it to the quest for the holy grail, and the organization was willing
to do whatever necessary to bring it to fruition.
The Coatings team was the largest of the four studied, and was considerably larger than a typical
R&D team. Although there were 10 core team members – employees dedicated to the Coatings
project full time or half time – the stated size of the entire team varied considerably, with respond-
ents estimating anywhere up to 50 total project contributors. The lack of clarity around team size
was due to the large number of technical staff who were not official team members contributing to
some aspect of the project. I interviewed eight of the 10 core team members; two were unavailable
during the study. The Coatings team was organized into two sub-teams, each exploring distinct
nano-chemical pathways to the team’s goals.
Although the Coatings team was halfway into the proposed six-month timeline at the time of
study, members described the team as still coming together and cohering around common goals
and assumptions. Formal team leaders shared frustrations about getting team members aligned,
setting up labs, and coordination between the two sub-teams. Already an unusually large team, the
team was also frantically onboarding new staff from the labs and hiring new employees, leading to
additional difficulties with coordination and alignment. These challenges were exacerbated by the
cross-functional nature of the team, coordinating members from all four corporate labs, each with
unique goals and outlooks. The sub-team structure, where both sub-teams were competing against
each other for the best solution to the problem, also presented some turf battles and communication
issues. Finally, given the strong presence on the team of a dominant and highly esteemed product
owner, the formal sub-team leaders felt they lacked genuine authority, which made their jobs of
organizing and coordinating team members more difficult. While those in formal leadership roles
Table 1. Team summary.
Team Project purpose Team size Number
interviewed
Functions
represented
Project stage Scope of
innovation
Coatings New coating with 3 unique
properties for many
industries
10 8 2 Early-Mid Large
Medical New material with unique
properties for medical
industry
66 3 Mid-Late Medium
Electronics New electronics
technology, produced via
new production methods
85 3 Mid Medium
Software New consumer-interfacing
software innovation
88 2 Late Medium
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Rosso 559
expressed stress about the aggressive timeframe, there was a strong impression among other team
members that the six-month timeline was both flexible and unrealistic (i.e. management knew it
was unlikely but wanted to aim for it anyway). Many team members interpreted the aggressive
timeframe more as symbolic of the importance of the project.
Medical team. Medical was a smaller project team, composed of six people, also working at the
nano-chemical level to develop a new material with unique chemical and physical properties
(extremely durable, while translucent and very lightweight) to be used in a healthcare application.
The technology development was quite advanced at the time of the study, borne from one team
member’s personal project over the prior eight years. Since the formalization of the project team in
the prior two years, the Medical team had explored a variety of potential product applications in
disparate industries, some large in scope, but was pursuing a more modest application in a con-
sumer industry where Gigantech already had a foothold. Although Gigantech typically aims for
innovations that have the potential to yield millions of dollars in corporate revenue and products in
multiple industries, the strategy behind the Medical team’s approach was to explore one or two
products before expanding the technology into other potential applications. At this somewhat
advanced stage of the project, the key elements of the technology were in place, but the team was
struggling with how to cost-effectively produce the material on a large scale while maintaining
consistent high quality (a typical challenge with nanotechnology). The fundamental technology
driving this project was very innovative, but it was less certain that it would have the profit poten-
tial of some other projects.
The Medical team was cross-functional, composed fairly evenly of members of the Materials
lab and the Production lab. The team also involved members of the divisional R&D unit related to
the target healthcare industry, and the entire team met regularly. I interviewed all six core members
of the team, including four Materials lab scientists (one of whom was the product owner), one
Production lab engineer, and a scientist from the divisional R&D unit who was also the formal
team leader.
The Medical team was struggling with a lack of adequate human resources, both in terms of
numbers and skill breadth, and with limited time to complete impending project milestones.
Financial resources were also limited for the team, and members were feeling pressured by the
need for the project to be successful financially in order for the organization to consider pursuing
further technology development. Medical was perhaps the least cohesive team among the four
studied, with members struggling with tensions stemming from differences in functional back-
ground, personality, and experience. There was intragroup conflict around the goals and expecta-
tions of the project, with divisional product development staff seeking a marketable solution and
corporate research lab staff seeking an elegant solution.
Electronics team. Electronics was a medium-sized team of eight core members at the middle stage
of their project. Although Gigantech technology development efforts are often intended for appli-
cability in several product domains, this particular project was targeted to one product application:
an electronics interface for consumer electronics. While still groundbreaking, this innovation was
slightly more iterative in the sense that it was an improvement – albeit a vast one – to an already
existing approach. Specifically, the team was tasked with using novel technologies to create an
electronics interface that mimicked the way consumers used previous technologies. The technol-
ogy was mostly developed, so the team’s focus was more on developing a creative production
solution (i.e. how can the intricate electronics be efficiently mass-produced on a large scale with
high reliability?). Unlike the Medical team, which aimed to produce Gigantech-branded products
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from their technical solution, the technology being developed by the Electronics team was intended
for sale to other businesses to be applied to those businesses’ branded products.
This cross-functional project involved a fairly even mix of members from the Materials lab,
Production lab, and Software lab. I interviewed five of the eight core team members, including two
scientists from the Materials lab and three engineers from the Production lab. This included the
product owner, a scientist in the Materials lab who was also the formal team leader. The remaining
three members of the team were unavailable during the time of the study.
Although the Electronics team was not experiencing time pressures to the degree of some of the
other teams, members were keenly aware of the deadlines facing the team and experienced this as
a constraint. Also, given that they were creating a consumer-oriented interface, the Electronics
team was also considerably constrained by user interface factors (i.e. how consumers will interact
with the device) that have shaped key product design requirements, as well as customer and market
demands for cheaper technology that performed better than competitors’. The Electronics team
was experiencing conflicts of opinion across Materials lab vs. Production lab lines – typical ten-
sions in R&D teams at Gigantech related to differences between scientists (Materials lab) and
engineers (Production lab). However, team members still worked fairly well together as a team,
and were able to put differences of opinion aside in the best interests of team-oriented solutions.
This was aided by the team leader’s establishment of strong routines around regular and open com-
munication, including regular full team meetings in which progress was discussed and ideas shared.
Such norms fostered a positive and productive team dynamic, despite the differences of opinion,
with team members suggesting that ‘healthy tensions’ among the sometimes divergent perspectives
on the team promoted the team’s creativity overall.
Software team. Software was a medium-sized team of eight core members based primarily in the
Software lab. The team had been organized around a novel software development project with
considerable visibility, both within the company and externally, launching in partnership with a
prominent external partner who was developing an innovative technology platform on which the
Software product would be a pioneer. Within Gigantech, the Software lab was often described as
different from the other corporate labs, particularly with respect to the nature of projects and
approaches to team work. Indeed, the nature of the creative work in the Software project team was
more dynamic, interactive teamwork, as compared to more segmented, laboratory-based work.
The Software team used the Agile approach to software development, the goal of which is to struc-
ture roles, responsibilities, and processes within which the creative process can unfold. The tech-
nology behind the Software project employed principles of physiological and psychological
science to predict how users will interact with products.
The Software team was composed of scientists and software developers. Unusually, there
were three members with leadership roles: two scientists, who were team technical co-leaders
and acted as content experts, and one software developer in charge of administering and facilitat-
ing the group process. I interviewed all eight team members, including three scientists and five
software developers. This team differed from others in the study in that two of the software
developers on the team were non-Gigantech contractors. These contractors, who frequently
work with Gigantech teams, are hired on a project-by-project basis, depending on the needs of
the particular project.
The Software team was working under a very aggressive timeframe to complete the project
– more aggressive even than the typical timeframes for similar software development projects –
driven by a desire to capture market share and to align with the external partner’s timeframe for
launching their new technology platform. The team was also feeling constrained by the need to
design the technology to be user friendly, meet the key needs of the market, and align with
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Gigantech’s corporate identity and priorities. The Software team, the project, and the space in
which they met (so-called, ‘the war room’) were playful and team-oriented. The team met daily
for a scrum, in which members took turns reporting progress and identifying impediments to
their work. These meetings were playful, yet focused by a predetermined meeting structure.
Team members reported strong interpersonal cohesion, based around what they described as
similar personalities, work styles, and senses of humor, and they lauded the team dynamic,
open environment, and frequent opportunities taken for team-building and team rewards (e.g.
outings to baseball games). The war room was a vibrant space with sticky notes on the walls
capturing key ideas and insights, impediments, questions, goals, and humorous quotes from
prior meetings. Drawings and memorabilia (e.g. toys, puzzles, hats, figurines) adorned the
walls and table.
Data analysis
To analyze the data, I used a grounded theory approach, in which I iteratively traveled back and
forth between the data and my emerging theoretical understandings (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). I
began by reading through all interview transcripts and free coded them line-by-line using the
NVivo 8 software for patterns and themes that seemed meaningful, recurrent, fundamental, or
interesting (Boyatzis, 1998). Guided by my research questions, I paid particular attention to exam-
ples of constraints either enabling or inhibiting the team creative process, and to the team dynamics
underlying these experiences. I then returned to the data, looking across the interviews to identify
common patterns and themes, from which I distilled a higher-order set of categories for classifying
the responses. I then analyzed these codes for emergent theoretical insights, continuing to travel
back to the data for additional analysis and further coding based on the new insights that were
emerging. These were compared against the observational memos written throughout the study,
which provided context for the emergent patterns and themes. As suggested by Miles and Huberman
(1984), I also actively sought outliers, rival cases and explanations, and discrepant information to
challenge and influence the emergent theoretical insights.
I undertook this process several times over the course of four months, seeking to aggregate the
codes into ever more fundamental categories, and refining and adjusting my theoretical framework
in light of new insights and interpretations, continuing until I reached theoretical saturation (Glaser
& Strauss, 1967). This process allowed me to systematically develop theoretical and empirical
insights that accurately reflected the data collected (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). I also regularly wrote
analytical memos capturing my impressions, reactions, insights, and questions that emerged during
the data analysis process, intended to help me make meaning of the data (Miles & Huberman,
1984).
To measure inter-coder reliability, a research assistant, blind to the study, was then recruited to
independently code the data using the codebook I developed. A sub-sample of the two largest
teams (Coatings and Software; 16 respondents total) was used for these analyses. The overall
agreement rate between the coders was 85.71%, and discrepancies were resolved through
discussion.
Findings
Types of constraints and their impact on team creativity
The first research question was ‘What are the key constraints experienced by R&D teams and what
impact do these have on team creativity?’ The goal of this inquiry was to uncover which constraints
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were most salient to R&D teams in this creative context, and to understand what impact various
constraints had on R&D team creativity. In this section, I develop a typology of constraints that fall
into two main categories: Process constraints and Product constraints. I then discuss trends in the
ways process and product constraints affected team creativity.
As mentioned earlier, I began this study with a deliberately broad definition of constraint as a
state of being restricted, limited, or confined within prescribed bounds. The goal of this open-
ended approach was threefold. First, since the extant theory and research have focused on only a
very limited set of constraints, I wanted to ground my study in the R&D teams’ own perceptions
about what they considered constraints in their projects, so as not to limit the theoretical scope of
the research by entering with preconceived notions. This proved to be a fruitful strategy, as a broad
and diverse set of constraints were revealed to impact R&D teams. Second, by examining a broad
set of possible constraints, I was able to observe the similarities and differences among constraints
as they affected team creativity. This was vital for building a holistic understanding of the role
constraints play in the creative process.
I began by asking respondents to describe episodes in which their team had responded to, or
introduced constraints into the project work process. I then asked respondents what constraints
their team was facing in the project at that time, and to discuss the impact of each of the constraints
they identified on the team’s processes and creative performance. My criterion for categorizing a
constraint was simply respondents’ identification of something as a constraint. When respondents
mentioned that something was a constraint, I open coded (Strauss & Corbin, 1992) that item as a
constraint type, labeling it accordingly (e.g. Constraint – time). This open coding took place as part
of the line-by-line coding of each interview transcript for meaningful and recurrent themes. After
coding all transcripts, I distilled the constraint codes into higher order categories, defined by core
similarities related to the nature of the constraint (i.e. what was the limiting factor of the con-
straint?), and how it affected the team. For example, the codes Constraint lack of people and
Constraint – skill set were distilled into the category Human resources constraints because they
were both related to limitations of human resources. I went through several iterations of this pro-
cess, distilling the constraints into ever more fundamental categories, until I could no longer aggre-
gate the categories. At that point, I concluded my categorization, ending with 15 unique types of
constraint. The categories of constraints yielded by this process can be seen in Table 2, along with
the number of sources (respondents) who identified each constraint as well as the total number of
references to each type of constraint across the 27 interviews. While many of these constraints
were identified by several respondents across the four teams, some were mentioned only by a few.
Since the unit of analysis for this study was the team, I wanted to retain only constraints identified
by a critical mass of team members, determining that in such cases, shared perceptions of core or
salient constraints facing the project team existed. Therefore, in order to be considered a core con-
straint, a constraint needed to be raised by half of the members of at least one of the R&D teams
studied. This criterion excluded seven constraints, such as Technological, Regulatory, and Public
health constraints. These exclusions yielded a final set of eight core constraints, which are high-
lighted in Table 2.
A surprising variety of constraints emerged from my analyses, including several that I had not
considered at the outset of the study. In the following paragraphs, I describe the eight core con-
straints, presented in order of prominence from most to least frequently mentioned. These included
limitations or restrictions related to (a) time, (b) product requirements, (c) equipment, (d) customer
and market needs, (e) business needs, (f) intellectual property, (g) human resources, and (h) money.
I illustrate each of these constraints with quotations from members of the four R&D teams, identi-
fied by team number: T1 (Coatings), T2 (Medical), T3 (Electronics), and T4 (Software) and
respondent number (e.g. R1, R2, R3, etc.).
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Time. By far the most common type of constraint mentioned by respondents was time: 84%
of respondents, including members of every team, identified limitations of time as a key
constraint facing their project team. Perceived time constraints were typically related to the
project timeline, or the allocated time for the completion of the project or a portion thereof.
For many, time was the most significant and pervasive constraint they faced, to the extent that
it was considered an inherent and inescapable part of the R&D process. While time con-
straints tend to be imposed externally from leaders, some respondents discussed their teams’
efforts to deliberately place time constraints on their projects as a way to enhance their
creativity.
Although the prominence of time constraints in R&D was a consistent message across the
teams, there was considerable variance in how different project teams seemed to interpret time
constraints. For example, while the Medical and Software teams were both experiencing aggres-
sive time constraints, members of the two teams described them quite differently. One member of
the Medical team expressed the team’s frustration with aggressive timelines, saying, ‘Management
is always coming up with very aggressive deadlines, which on the one hand I understand
because everybody needs a deadline … but sometimes … the expectations are so unrealistic that it
makes everyone more stressed out’ (T2R3). Meanwhile, though the Software team was also expe-
riencing very aggressive timelines, members seemed to take it more in stride, even seeing creative
benefits in the limited time. For example, one Software team member said, ‘We got pretty creative,
if you will, in solving some of those challenges because we had some tight deadlines we had to
meet’ (T4R2). Such interpretations seemed to be influenced by how aggressive the time constraints
were perceived to be, and therefore, how challenging the creative task seemed in light of the time
limitations. Generally, the more aggressive the time constraints, the more difficult or damaging
they were perceived to be for team creativity.
Table 2. Constraint categorization hierarchy.
Category Constraint Type # of Unique Sources Total # of References
Process Constraints
Time* 21 30
Equipment* 9 9
Human resources* 5 8
Money* 5 5
Technology 3 3
Process legacy 2 2
Manufacturing capability 1 1
Organizational structure 1 1
Product Constraints
Product requirements* 13 18
Customer and market
needs*
8 10
Business needs* 7 12
Intellectual property* 7 8
Product legacy 3 6
Regulations 1 1
Public health 1 1
* Core (salient) constraint
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Among the different constraints raised, time constraints provoked the most variance among
respondents on whether or not the constraint was perceived as authentic. Such perceptions also
seemed to impact how teams interpreted and responded to the constraint. Specifically, it seems
time constraints must be perceived as genuine in order to impact team creativity either for better or
for worse. If time constraints were perceived to be genuine, teams understood that timeframes were
likely not negotiable and that they would need to organize accordingly. However, if time con-
straints were perceived to be fabricated – for example, as a motivational tool – they were unlikely
to play much of a significant role. A member of the Coatings team reflected this sentiment about
the aggressive six-month time constraint they were under, saying:
I’m not sure that it’s real, to be honest with you. I think it may be a way to create a sense of urgency on
upper management’s part, which I understand. So there’s a constraint maybe for time, but [we] don’t feel
that yet. (T1R2)
Product requirements. The second most commonly identified types of constraints were limitations
related to the requirements of the expected product: 52% of respondents identified product require-
ments as a key constraint facing their project teams. These constraints were particularly salient to
the Coatings and Electronics teams. Although the product requirements varied considerably across
the different projects, they shared in common that these were constraining factors because they
defined the properties of the expected project outcome. For example, the Coatings project was
expected to achieve a very difficult combination of three specific unique chemical properties – prop-
erties that have never before existed in combination. One team member described them as follows:
Well, there are product requirements. From those things, we can decide oh, okay, we have to meet the
certain number of criteria, and so we work on trying to fulfill those criteria … And I would say it’s been a
constraint on creativity. The constraint was combining all three of these properties, until one solution
emerged. So that was pretty well defined. (T1R6)
Product requirements like these were therefore a key component defining the goals of the project
and the trajectory of the team. Such constraints are, of course, a normative part of the R&D pro-
cess, because project teams need to have some sense for the desired outcome. Respondents talked
about these constraints as valuable in developing useful solutions, beyond just novel solutions. One
respondent said, ‘It’s not just about [novel] material, because we don’t sell chemicals. We sell fin-
ished products. So … it has to go through some process usually to be put into a product that’s use-
ful’ (T1R5).
Product requirement constraints were typically imposed externally by leaders or managers, with
the aim of creating technologies that could meet specific user needs further down the product
development pipeline. As with time constraints, product requirements were interpreted both posi-
tively and negatively. Overall, however, teams described product requirement constraints in over-
whelmingly positive terms. This was particularly surprising given the remarkable specificity with
which product requirements are typically defined, which might be expected to be perceived as
inhibiting creative possibilities. On the contrary, respondents found the definition and clarity
resulting from product requirement constraints to be quite helpful, especially in the team context
where greater ambiguity could exist around goals. One respondent noted that having a clear prob-
lem to be solved was ‘helpful, but it’s because the problem isn’t so well-defined [but] the
desired solution is well-defined’ (T1R7). In other words, product requirement constraints provided
a helpful target for the team to aim for and organize their creative efforts around. As one respondent
said, ‘it doesn’t feel so constraining, because I can think of many ways of hitting those targets’
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(T3R1). In fact, although product requirements are typically defined by higher-ups, many of the
project teams described introducing these constraints on themselves. Others described product
requirements as essential to creative R&D, saying, for example, ‘Once you set up a goal, you’re
constrained. And development good, creative development on a complicated project cannot
happen without technical constraint’ (T3R5).
Respondents did speak about the potential for product requirements to be detrimental to team
creativity if for some reason the broader environment or task structure didn’t allow for flexible
creative processes. A member of the Electronics team noted that product requirement constraints,
while typically helpful for team creativity, would be detrimental if, for example, ‘we can think of
ten ways of hitting the targets, but because of the organization we’re in, we can’t really do half of
those’ (T3R1).
Equipment. Equipment limitations present another important constraint for R&D teams. This con-
straint was mentioned by 36% of respondents, and was particularly salient to the Coatings team. In
order to be able to innovate, R&D teams need to have access to adequate and appropriate resources.
In the realm of cutting edge technical work like that being done at Gigantech, team members rely
on intricate and expensive scientific instruments and technical machinery to conduct experiments,
produce samples, and test and analyze the results of their work. Lack of access to such equipment
can be a tremendous constraint to team performance and the creative process. While R&D teams
at Gigantech typically have access to a wealth of equipment resources, there were times that the
equipment at hand was insufficient or the organization did not possess the equipment needed. This
was the case for two of the teams studied, which were struggling with a lack of resources. For
example, the Coatings team was in the middle of a crucial testing and experimentation phase, but
did not have access to all of the equipment they needed to move forward. This was due to a variety
of factors, including sharing resources with other project teams in the firm who needed the same
equipment, and outdated equipment in the company. The very fast ramp-up of the project exacer-
bated this limitation. A team member described the negative impact equipment constraints were
having on the team’s creativity and productivity, saying, ‘We can’t use that [equipment], you know,
to experiment with. And because you can’t do that and it’s probably the best way to make a number
of different materials, it’s hard to innovate’ (T1R5). These constraints contributed to delays and
inefficiencies in the project at a time when the team could not afford them. A similar story emerged
from the Medical team, which did not have the access they wanted to key instruments and machines
due to both limited capital equipment capacities in the organization and geographical restrictions.
Thus, in the two main teams for which equipment constraints were a factor, team members high-
lighted the negative impact of these limitations on the team’s creativity.
Customer and market needs. The fourth most frequently mentioned types of constraint were cus-
tomer and market needs. Such constraints were mentioned by 32% of respondents, including mem-
bers of all teams, and were particularly salient to the Electronics team. Customer and market needs
were common constraints affecting the R&D process because new technologies must be designed
to address customer and market needs. Whereas product requirement constraints are related to
desired property outcomes determined internally by leaders of the organization, customer and
market need constraints are related to needs determined externally by the broader competitive
landscape. In other words, the demands of the broader marketplace constrain which solutions crea-
tive teams pursue. This is a constraint unique to creative work in an organizational setting (as
opposed to an artistic setting, for example), where R&D teams must produce novel solutions that
will also sell well. This is particularly true at an organization like Gigantech, which markets and
sells products and technologies to other businesses as well as consumers. A member of the Medical
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team described such customer and market need constraints succinctly: ‘Who is really your cus-
tomer and what is really important to them? The biggest constraint is the target market’ (T2R4).
Although constraints posed by external customer and market needs would seem to have a nega-
tive impact on team creativity, respondents perceived them to be quite helpful, not just because
they provided clarity and direction, but because they provided the sense that the team was doing
important work with practical application. Without such constraints, an R&D team could design
extremely novel solutions that might have no utility for customers (and therefore would be a fail-
ure, from a design and a sales standpoint). On the other hand, these types of constraints can intro-
duce complexity and ambiguity into the creative process. As one respondent noted, ‘There’s no
way that you’re gonna be able to 100% satisfy 100% of your users, so you constantly have to make
trade-offs’ (T4R4). By and large, however, team members found it creatively stimulating ‘trying to
provide something for the customer that they want to use’ (T4R7).
Business needs. The needs of the business also present important constraints for creative teams in
organizational settings. For the teams studied, these were among the most significant constraints
they faced in the R&D process. 28% of respondents mentioned business need constraints as core
constraints facing the project, including members of all teams, and these constraints were particu-
larly salient to the Medical team. Similar to how teams are constrained by the external demands of
customers and the market, they were heavily constrained by the needs, goals, and priorities of the
organization itself. Simply put, the technologies developed by these teams needed to be very profit-
able, and this was a central criterion for the funding and promotion of projects. A leader of
the Medical team put it bluntly, saying, ‘The biggest constraint? They need us to make money for
the company’ (T1R1). Although there is room for variance, the goal is for each project to have the
potential to generate at least tens of millions of dollars in revenue. Clearly, this constrains which
technologies are developed, and how. Although the magnitude of these business need constraints
was striking, by and large respondents did not allude to them being debilitating. Team members
mostly described these constraints matter-of-factly, as an expected part of the job, even potentially
helpful. Some did express frustration over such stringent profitability criteria for projects, how-
ever, and the fact that some very novel ideas are shelved in favor of those with greater business
utility. One team member said:
The business stuff is all constraints that are dictated by an industrial, large-scale outfit like ours. What I
mean by that is we’re not a start-up company. Sometime in the past we were a start-up company, and there
was a mentality, ‘oh, let’s just try it out and see how it goes in the business, and then if it grows, it grows;
if it doesn’t grow, it doesn’t grow,’ but it’s no longer like that. [Now], it’s much more, you know, well,
we’re only gonna get into this business if it’s really in the tens of millions of dollars. You know, don’t ever
touch any project if it’s not $20 million. (T2R1)
In contrast, others saw both practical and creative value in business need constraints:
You’ve got to coordinate with the business need … ’cause if we can’t sell it, we’re not gonna be working
on it. Some technical people lose focus on that fact. They just [think] technology is technology for
technology’s sake. You know, that’s fine, but in the end it’s gotta be useful for something and you have to
be able to make some money on it. (T4R8)
Intellectual property. Intellectual property issues were another key category of constraints. These
were raised by 28% of respondents, and primarily by the Coatings team. Intellectual property
concerns influence every R&D effort in a setting where the goal is to develop novel and useful
solutions. New technologies must be differentiable from competitors, and designed in such a way
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as to not infringe on the intellectual property rights of others. Since the goal of most R&D efforts
at Gigantech is to develop patentable solutions that will drive long-term value, this is a clear con-
straint for R&D teams. Like a few of the other constraints already discussed, intellectual property
constraints are facts of life in R&D; they are always there. Perhaps for this reason, they were not
raised as constraints by as many teams. However, like other constraints, intellectual property
constraints also varied in their severity, depending on how much competition existed or how well-
developed the industry was. Either way, they played an important role in shaping the R&D pro-
cess for teams, often helping to define what could even be considered creative in a given domain.
Human resources. Another limitation that emerged as a key constraint was human resource con-
straints, or limitations in staffing. Human resource constraints were mentioned by 20% of respond-
ents, and were only really salient to the Medical team, which felt constrained by a lack of manpower
to help with the project workload and by the skillsets of team members. The Medical team was
recruiting and onboarding new members, but not at a fast enough pace. These human resources
constraints were consistently described by team members as harmful to the team and their creativ-
ity, as they struggled to accomplish key project tasks with the members they had. The fields in
which these teams were working are highly specialized and typically require graduate-level train-
ing, and leaders may have difficulty hiring staff with the right combination of specialized skills
needed by the team. Lacking necessary domain expertise made team creativity very difficult.
Money. Financial constraints were mentioned by 20% of respondents, emphasized primarily by the
Medical team. As evidenced by the billions of dollars spent on R&D at Gigantech and similar
firms, R&D is a costly endeavor, particularly at the level of the cutting edge technological innova-
tion happening at Gigantech. The state of the art changes quickly as scientists and engineers make
breakthroughs in nanotechnology and other innovative areas. These scientific innovations require
costly technological resources, materials, and other forms of investment. Even at a large firm like
Gigantech, financial resources are far from unlimited, and managers make difficult decisions about
how to allocate financial resources in order to realize the greatest return on the investment. For
example, an engineer on the Medical team said,
It’s always money, right? You can never spend enough money [laughter]. If we had an unlimited budget,
we would spend so much money it would be disturbing. Because we can always think of something [to
spend it on]. So you’re always dancing around the budget. (T2R6)
However, where financial constraints existed, they were not necessarily interpreted negatively. For
example, one member of the Software team described the team setting financial constraints on
themselves: ‘There was a significant cost constraint placed on our development team, because we
were kind of in skunkworks mode. So there was definitely a monetary threshold we set for our-
selves’ (T4R6). Financial constraints certainly play a role in the R&D process at Gigantech, but
overall there seemed to be an understanding among teams that they were working in an environment
of relative largesse, particularly given the global economic recession at the time, and that where
monetary constraints existed, as long as they weren’t stifling, they were not necessarily having a
negative impact on team creativity.
Process Constraints vs. Product Constraints
The constraints outlined above paint a fairly comprehensive picture of the key constraints affecting
R&D projects, many of which are not particularly surprising in the context of creative R&D. All
represent substantial constraints that these teams had to manage in their creative work. However,
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Table 3. Core constraints and levels of agreement by team.
Constraint Type Coatings Team Medical Team Electronics Team Software Team
Process Constraints
Time 7/8* 4/6* 3/4* 7/7*
Equipment 6/8* 2/6 1/4 0/7
Human Resources 0/8 4/6* 0/4 1/7
Money 0/8 3/6* 1/4 1/7
Product Constraints
Product
requirements
7/8* 2/6 2/4* 2/7
Customer and
market needs
2/8 2/6 2/4* 2/7
Business needs 1/8 3/6* 1/4 2/7
Intellectual property 5/8* 1/6 0/4 1/7
*Core (salient) constraint
as illustrated by the analyses above, it became clear that different constraints tended to affect team
creativity in different ways. More specifically, teams tended to experience different types of con-
straints differently in terms of their impact on team creativity. Some constraints were experienced
as quite negative, others as more positive, and sometimes, positive or negative, depending on the
level of constraint or the context surrounding the project. As this became clear, I set out to under-
stand why this might be and whether there were commonalities among these constraints responsi-
ble for the different reactions. To examine these questions, I sought to understand whether certain
types of constraints operated similarly on team creativity. I analyzed the data on the eight types of
constraints for common patterns in how they influenced the team creative process and what impact
this had on team creativity. After several iterations of analysis, there emerged two broad categories
within which the eight aforementioned constraints could be organized. I called these categories
Process constraints and Product constraints. Process constraints constrain how it is that the work
is done (i.e. they limit possible approaches), whereas product constraints constrain the intended or
expected outcomes of the work (i.e. they limit possible solutions). With these differences in mind,
I then scrutinized the trends in the data regarding what impact – positive, negative, or both – these
different categories of constraints tended to have on team creativity. I distinguish and expound on
these two categories of constraints below, and the ways in which they impact team creativity. I also
outline these categories, and their salience in each of the four teams, in Table 3.
Process constraints
Constraints of time, equipment, human resources, and money can be described as process con-
straints. Process constraints introduce limitations to the processes by which R&D teams approach
creative projects. In other words, they constrain how work is done. Time, equipment, human
resources, and financial constraints all play a role in limiting the resources R&D teams have at their
disposal in the creative process. As a result, they shape how creative teams approach their work.
For example, teams facing significant time constraints must make decisions about how to organize
to accomplish their development goals under such time pressures. This may require trade-offs or
compromises in the process of invention, such as either lowering expectations or leveraging exist-
ing and proven platforms. Alternatively, the time constraints may stimulate creative teams to action
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or inspire them to identify novel approaches to solve problems in unusual ways. Similarly, teams
facing stringent financial constraints will need to find places to streamline their efforts, or perhaps
find new ways to make do with what resources they have, or to use those resources in novel ways.
Whatever the implications, process constraints shape how creative teams approach their work.
Product constraints
Constraints from product requirements, customer and market needs, business needs, and intellec-
tual property can be described as product constraints. Product constraints limit the realm of pos-
sible solutions that can be pursued by R&D teams. In other words, they constrain the outcome of
the project. Product requirement constraints, customer and market need constraints, business need
constraints, and intellectual property constraints all play a role in limiting alternatives for the crea-
tive solution. As a result, they narrow or define the intended or expected outcomes of the project.
For example, teams presented with strict product requirement constraints are limited in terms of
which solution they will arrive at. This narrowing of possibilities may help a diverse team clarify
and coalesce around creative goals, or it could lead them to a solution that is less than optimal.
Similarly, when faced with heavy market demands, teams may be inspired to think creatively to
meet the challenge, or they may discard some potentially interesting ideas. Either way, product
constraints impact the solutions creative teams derive.
Considering process constraints and product constraints together
In the interviews, these two categories of constraints were emphasized about equally, and received
approximately the same number of mentions when respondents were asked to discuss the con-
straints affecting their projects. Both process and product constraints played important and neces-
sary roles in the R&D process, and as the earlier examples illustrate, both possessed the potential
to inhibit or enhance team creativity. More specifically, process constraints tended to inhibit team
creativity when they reduced experimentation and intrinsic motivation, and when they were per-
ceived to restrict possibilities. On the other hand, process constraints tended to enhance team crea-
tivity when they provoked motivation, team cohesion, and novel approaches to difficult challenges.
Likewise, product constraints tended to enhance team creativity when they provided focus, struc-
ture, and a common framework, and they tended to inhibit team creativity when they reduced
perceived challenge or promoted the status quo.
While these data reveal that both process constraints and product constraints have the potential
to enhance or inhibit team creativity, the data suggest that, overall, constraints on work processes
(i.e. process constraints) had more negative implications for team creativity than constraints on
work outcomes (i.e. product constraints). In turn, product constraints seemed to have greater poten-
tial to positively impact team creativity than did process constraints. To put it more simply, process
constraints were more likely to inhibit team creativity, while product constraints were more likely
to enhance team creativity. Why was this the case?
It seems that process and product constraints differentially impact team creativity both because
they operate differently on team creativity and because they tend to be interpreted differently.
Process constraints constrain how the work is done, and therefore limit the set of possible
approaches that can be taken by the team. This tends to inhibit the sense of empowerment team
members feel in their work, as well as how much freedom they have in the way they enact the
project. Previous research demonstrates that a lack of empowerment and autonomy reduces intrin-
sic motivation, which inhibits creativity (Amabile, 1996; Deci & Ryan, 2002). On the other hand,
product constraints constrain the intended or expected outcomes of the project, and therefore limit
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the set of possible solutions to the problem. As long as those limitations are not too burdensome, it
seems the team collectively benefits from the focusing effect of a well-defined creative challenge,
while retaining the freedom to create in whichever manner they choose.
The data do show exceptions to these rules, however. All four of the teams demonstrated a
capacity for creativity overall, even when faced with difficult process constraints, and even where
some team members perceived those constraints to be harmful. By the same token, there were
instances where product constraints were harmful to team creativity. These conclusions beg the
question of whether there are certain circumstances that influence the impact of process and prod-
uct constraints on team creativity.
In the next section, I examine this issue by asking ‘Under what conditions do constraints inhibit
or enhance R&D team creativity?’ These analyses revealed common patterns of group dynamics
across the teams, which I call disabling dynamics and enabling dynamics, which shaped the inter-
pretations teams made of constraints, and therefore the trajectory that constraints took in terms of
team creativity (i.e. inhibiting or enhancing).
Under What Conditions Do Constraints Inhibit or Enhance Team
Creativity?
In order to examine the circumstances under which constraints impacted team creativity differ-
ently, I went back to the data to analyze each of the four focal teams as independent cases, and
conducted cross-case analyses (Miles & Huberman, 1984). The goal of this process was to identify
contextual similarities and differences across the four independent cases (Eisenhardt, 1989; Yin,
1994), paying close attention to the ways in which each team talked about their team processes,
contexts, and constraints, and what relationship these had with team creativity. To examine these
issues, the interview transcripts were open coded (Strauss & Corbin, 1992) using the NVivo 8
software for contextual factors and group processes and dynamics in the team. I then iterated back
through the interviews, distilling the open codes into ever more fundamental categories, until these
categories could no longer be further aggregated conceptually. This process yielded a total of 10
contextual factors, all related to the broader Gigantech organizational context. These included
categories such as Collaborative culture and environment, Culture of embracing challenge, Few
boundaries, Freedom, and Open networks. As for the coding of group processes and dynamics, the
51 original open codes were reduced to 29 categories, which were organized into five broad dimen-
sions of team dynamics: Collaboration, Communication, Task structure, Leadership, and Social
environment. These team dynamics dimensions, and the underlying codes, can be seen in Table 4.
The four teams were then compared on these dimensions, investigating shared patterns of behav-
iors and interpretations.
The data on contextual factors were all positive factors of the organizational context related to
creativity. These data revealed no discernible differences across cases with respect to team-level
interpretations. The data on group processes and dynamics, however, revealed important differ-
ences between teams in how members interacted with each other and organized to achieve their
goals. However, unexpectedly, the ways in which the teams varied in their descriptions of the
dynamics of the team were surprisingly consistent. In particular, across the four cases, there
emerged two dominant and distinct patterns of social dynamics that were related to positive and
negative/neutral trajectories for team creativity, respectively. I refer to these two patterns as ena-
bling dynamics and disabling dynamics. Although the four teams varied in many ways, teams
demonstrating enabling or disabling dynamics shared identifiable similarities that seemed to be
indicative of fundamentally different dynamics in the team.
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Table 4. Matrix of team dynamics codes by project team.
Coatings Medical Electronics Software
Collaboration
Enabling dynamics
Collaboration X X
Pursuing team goals X X
Disabling dynamics
Chemicals lab vs. Production lab X X
Difficulty bringing team together X X
Lack of collaboration X
Turf issues X
Communication
Enabling dynamics
Healthy tensions X
Open communication X X
Disabling dynamics
Limited team interaction X X
Poor communication X X
Task structure
Enabling dynamics
Accountability X
Flexibility X
Freedom; autonomy X X
Process freedom X X
Disabling dynamics
Flexibility lacking X
Leadership
Enabling dynamics
Freedom from micromanagement X X
Leaders insulate team X
Managerial support X
Advocating leadership X
Disabling dynamics
Lack of genuine leadership authority X
Social environment
Enabling dynamics
Cohesiveness X X
Humor X
Playfulness X
Similarity X
Trust X
Disabling dynamics
Overly task focused X
Personal problems X
Team conflict X X X
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Disabling dynamics
Two of the teams, Coatings and Medical, demonstrated disabling dynamics. Teams with disabling
dynamics demonstrated difficulty organizing around shared goals. Team members tended to work
independently or in small subgroups, as opposed to collectively and across laboratory boundaries.
They exhibited cross-functional conflicts and difficulty integrating their diverse perspectives.
Often, team members demonstrated distrust of others’ motives, and this distrust was exacerbated
by a lack of regular and open communication. These teams also seemed to exist in environments
lacking in facilitative leadership exemplifying healthy group practices and norms. In some cases, a
lack of authority of team leaders contributed to the dysfunction. In this dynamic, constraints were
often seen as obstacles to creativity that limited the team and its ability to create in ways it was
capable of. It also limited members’ intrinsic motivation to be creative and break free of status quo
approaches to problems.
Enabling dynamics
The Electronics and Software teams, on the other hand, demonstrated enabling dynamics. Teams
with enabling dynamics expressed clarity and cohesiveness around common goals. Team members
reported a supportive environment for creativity in the team that encouraged risk-taking in pursuit
of innovation. Team leaders established clear routines for regular and open communication in the
group, even where strong differences in perspective existed. These differences were often verbal-
ized and processed, rather than segmented and ignored. Leaders also provided team members with
considerable freedom in their work, trusting them to enact their own roles and responsibilities.
Dynamics in these teams were playful, yet focused, and members reported feelings of interpersonal
connectedness. For such teams, constraints were more likely to be perceived as opportunities,
excuses, or stimuli for creativity, providing empowering creative challenges that engaged team
members’ drive to solve challenging problems. Teams with enabling dynamics often strategically
imposed constraints on themselves as a way to bolster their performance and creativity. However,
even where unwelcomed constraints were experienced, team members were often able to see value
in them. In this way, members of teams with enabling dynamics demonstrated cognitive flexibility,
with a heightened awareness about the constraints they were facing and prescience about the
impact of those constraints on the team.
Next, I discuss the features of teams demonstrating enabling dynamics and disabling dynam-
ics, and illustrate them, and their relationship to team creativity, with evidence from the four
teams. Table 4 presents a matrix of these five factors, and their underlying codes, analyzed by
team.
Contextual Factors Underlying Enabling and Disabling Dynamics
Collaboration
The first differentiator between teams demonstrating enabling and disabling dynamics was the
level of collaboration in the team. Teams with enabling dynamics demonstrated high levels of
team-oriented collaboration, where members set aside individual or functional differences to pur-
sue shared goals. Given the independent and strong-minded nature of technical staff, along with the
individual nature of some rewards in the organization, such a strong team orientation was a power-
ful indicator of an enabling group dynamic. One member of the Software team described the way
in which team members set egos aside for common goals:
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Sometimes I think when you’ve got a lot of motivated individuals, you create a scenario where you might
have somebody try to establish an alpha type of role. We didn’t have that at all. We naturally slid or fell
into our respective roles. We all played very well together. (T4R6)
Teams with disabling dynamics, on the other hand, demonstrated a lack of collaboration and a
lack of willingness to find common ground, particularly across functional boundaries. These dif-
ferences in perspective could be quite stark, and teams with disabling dynamics tended to either
avoid them or push forward in subgroups focused on their own approaches. This made it difficult
for these teams to build synergy and leverage the collective expertise in the group. A member of
the Coatings team said:
This team is kind of a mix. It has some people working together to try new ideas and collaborating very
well, and then there are also people … just continuing with what they were doing. I find that’s harder to
join in on some of those ideas and advance them forward because there’s already ownership of the idea by
somebody else. It’s like, ‘This is my turf.’ (T1R7)
Internal turf battles of this sort, and the lack of collaboration they often led to, inhibited the team’s
ability to build energy around a collective pursuit. Some teams rarely met together as an entire
group, and when all-team meetings did occur, they were often characterized by acrimony.
Communication
A second dimension on which teams differed was the quality and frequency of communication
within the team. Teams with enabling dynamics demonstrated open, respectful, and consistent
communication in which members were encouraged to share divergent perspectives. This created
an environment in which team members felt comfortable expressing their viewpoints, and felt their
viewpoints were taken seriously by those in positions of authority: As one team member said,
‘We’re – you know, everything’s out in the open so we don’t hide anything. We say, okay, here is
the stuff we need to deal with and make choices about’ (T4R4). For these teams, their open envi-
ronment and opportunities to express ideas without fear of repercussion was a matter of great pride
that enhanced the team’s ability to forge more creative solutions. This had an important impact on
team creativity, as one member stated:
You’re gonna add onto … or try to modify ideas and go back and forth. And to have an openness about that
helps [to] accept other people’s critiques. People will come up with more ideas if they know they
[won’t] get shut down. (T4R4)
In contrast, teams with disabling dynamics struggled with communication, particularly across
functional boundaries. Members of subgroups tended to communicate within their own areas, but
not frequently or effectively with those from other disciplines. This inhibited the ability of team
members to understand and integrate diverse perspectives and ideas. For example, in the Coatings
team, which was built from two previously separate sub-teams, leaders were having difficulty
fostering communication beyond the original silos. In addition, teams with disabling dynamics did
not have norms or formalized practices for regular communication. Oftentimes, communication
was limited to regular business meetings where the main purpose was reporting on individual or
small group results, rather than fostering group ideation processes. Beyond cross-functional com-
munication difficulties and few norms or practices supporting regular communication, teams with
disabling dynamics demonstrated unhealthy communication dynamics in general, where certain
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members tended to dominate or derail conversations. For example, the Medical team recounted
how one member lashed out at others during meetings. Such dynamics created frustrating team
environments in which members found it difficult to make forward progress.
Task structure
Teams also differed in how project work was organized and managed. Teams with enabling dynam-
ics exhibited clarity and structure around the goals of the project, but also considerable freedom
and flexibility in their approach to it. This process freedom allowed team members to be creative
in their strategies to address difficult problems. One member of the Software team described how,
despite working towards very clearly defined product outcomes, this freedom was creatively
empowering, saying, ‘There’s still a lot of leeway for us to get our job done. I think we have been
empowered to be creative and solve a lot of our own problems’ (T4R6). A member of the Electronics
team shared a similar experience: ‘There’s no one saying, “You gotta do it this way.” There are
certain goals that they want, but they’re not necessarily tied down to how you do it. So it’s actually
pretty flexible’ (T3R3).
Empowered to enact their work as they knew best, team members were more engaged in their
work and took greater ownership of the team’s results. Unsurprisingly, intrinsic motivation for the
project seemed particularly high in these teams. A leader on the Electronics team talked about how
deliberate this management approach was for him, restricting his own involvement to provide
needed flexibility, saying, ‘You can’t interfere with the process of how people get there. Sometimes
you have to let a person hit the wall, bounce back. Then if he needs help, provide that, but only if
he asks for it’ (T3R5).
Teams with disabling dynamics, on the other hand, tended to lack clarity around the direction of
the project and felt less empowered in their work. For example, although the goals of the Coatings
project were quite clearly defined, the subgroups had somewhat contradictory approaches to those
goals. This created confusion in the team as leaders struggled to integrate the formerly separate
teams and establish a broad team structure. Although the Coatings and Medical teams still retained
a fair amount of freedom in their approach, in the absence of broader clarity this freedom was
experienced as debilitating by some. In the Medical team, for example, leaders struggled to find the
right balance of structure and freedom. As one team member said:
If you set [a goal] too close, that’s micromanaging. If you set it way too far, then there is no leadership.
And I mean, it’s a perception thing. Some people will say, ‘He is micromanaging me.’ Or other people
might say, ‘I have enough freedom.’ It’s a complicated thing. (T2R3)
In the Coatings team, on the other hand, the extreme time constraints had created additional pres-
sures that restricted the flexibility team members had in their approach. Without adequate time to
play with new ideas, team members felt like they were mired in routine rather than creativity.
Leadership
Leadership dynamics also affected the teams. All four teams could be considered to have shared
leadership structures, managed by more than one central leader. Leadership was exercised formally
by assigned project leaders, who were tasked with administering the group’s progress toward pro-
ject goals, and informally by technical leaders, who led the technological invention. How those
leaders managed their projects, unsurprisingly, had a crucial impact on the team dynamic. In the
teams demonstrating enabling dynamics, there was clarity around the roles and responsibilities of
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each leader, and authority was enacted accordingly and respected by the team. For example, while
the Software team had two leaders responsible for the technical aspects of the project and a third
responsible for administration, these individuals led together as a collective unit, respecting each
other’s roles and boundaries. They also collaborated closely in building strategy and defining
organizing practices and routines for the team. This provided valuable clarity and structure for the
team, as described by a member:
Having a strong leader helps a lot. By strong I don’t mean imposing, but somebody very skilled at
organizing … providing structure and expectations and things like that. Because I think that makes the
team more functional. It helps free them up to be more creative. (T4R4)
Leaders of teams with enabling dynamics also kept a close eye on progress and held members
accountable to results. Team members respected the authority of these leaders as a result.
Teams with disabling dynamics, on the other hand, struggled for various reasons to establish
patterns of authority in the team, which hindered the ability of leaders to bring the team together
around project goals. For example, the Medical team, a small team in which the technical leader
was not the project leader, struggled to find clarity around the direction pushed by the technical
lead and that of the project lead. This was due to the different orientations and priorities of the func-
tions to which these leaders belonged. While the project leader was under strong pressure from the
division to finalize the technology and get it to market, the technical leader and staff were vying for
more time to perfect the solution. The Coatings project team leaders also struggled to establish and
exercise authority in their team, built from two previously separate sub-teams. One leader described
her frustrations with maintaining accountability for results in an environment in which she lacked
ultimate authority:
The issue with a team leader in my sense is we can’t go out and say, ‘You’ve got to do this.’ You want it
done and you need it done, but you don’t have all of the authority you need to be able to make sure that it
gets done. But I [still] have the responsibility. (T1R6)
Such dynamics made it difficult for leaders to unify their teams around a shared vision and to drive
progress.
Social environment
Finally, teams varied in the social environment amongst team members. Teams with enabling
dynamics evoked a different sense of connection to, comfort with, and enjoyment of each other.
This was apparent not only to members of the team itself, but to those outside of the team as well.
Members of such teams tended to convey feelings of deep alignment with other team members,
and appreciation for each other. Their feelings of connectedness were in part rooted in members’
perceptions that they had similar interests, personalities, and approaches to problem-solving. As
one team member said: ‘One thing I’ve noticed throughout the entire team … is we’ve all got kind
of the same, similar mentality’ (T4R3). They also exuded playfulness in their interactions, which
contributed to the creativity of the group. Another team member said:
We all played very well together, and I think fun, actually, was a contributing factor. There were
opportunities to blow off steam and talk about things like music, reminiscing about whatever was on TV
last Sunday or whatever it was that made us chuckle. I think if you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, the
likelihood of you being creative is going to be significantly less. (T4R6)
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In the Software team, for example, team leaders went to lengths to nurture and protect a playful
dynamic, even mandating fun group outings to bring members together and reward team efforts.
One team member said: ‘There were periodic “demands” that we actually go out and have lunch.
[The leader] would say, “You know what? You guys go out. Somebody use your corporate card –
it’s on [me]’” (T4R6).
Teams with disabling dynamics lacked the kind of interpersonal closeness and connectedness
demonstrated by teams with enabling dynamics. As described earlier, some teams conveyed
dynamics of disconnection, as evidenced by interpersonal frustration, conflict, and distrust. More
often, however, teams with disabling dynamics simply put limited effort or focus into the relational
dynamics of the team. In such teams, task-orientation superseded relationship building. Accordingly,
these teams missed opportunities to build a relational rapport, and work often felt solitary. Members
rarely interacted outside of regular results-oriented meetings. A member of the Coatings team
described the task-oriented nature of the team dynamic:
There’s a pleasant interaction socially when we meet but after the pleasantries, everybody just gets
focused and has your meeting … I would say there’s a good rapport among people, but I also think we
don’t spend too much time with that, it’s just really very professional. (T1R7)
The feeling in observing these teams was that they lacked a sense of unity possessed by the other
teams. In other words, they lacked the cohesiveness of teams with enabling dynamics. They also
lacked the sense of playfulness distinctive of these teams. Such heavy seriousness and reclusive-
ness seemed to shape the energy of the group dynamic in ways that inhibited a sense of
inspiration.
Summary: The Role of Enabling and Disabling Dynamics in Team
Creativity
In sum, there were distinct patterns of social dynamics in the four focal teams that could be classi-
fied as enabling dynamics and disabling dynamics. Two teams were seen as demonstrating ena-
bling dynamics and two demonstrated disabling dynamics. While all four of these teams were
facing salient constraints in their projects, the data suggested that these social dynamics put teams
on trajectories that shaped the way they interpreted the constraints they faced, which in turn
affected the impact these constraints had on team creativity. Specifically, teams experiencing ena-
bling group dynamics felt more empowered, purposeful, intrinsically motivated, and creative.
They were more comfortable with the constraints they were facing, even under relatively aggres-
sive constraints.
How do these social dynamics affect the way teams interpret and respond to constraints? By
limiting the set of possible process or product alternatives available, constraints introduce tension
to the creative process. This tension is representative of a paradox for creative teams. On one hand,
they don’t like to feel limited or have freedoms taken away, but on the other hand they need the
boundaries these limitations provide because such boundaries structure the team creative process.
Teams possessing enabling dynamics seemed to demonstrate a heightened collective awareness
and understanding of the positive and negative aspects of constraints. That is, they were accepting
of the paradox of constraint; they understood that they needed both freedom and constraint to be
successful. Take, for example, the following comment from a member of the Software team,
describing the creative implications of the constraints the team was facing around common user
interface metaphors (norms):
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In some ways, it inhibits creativity, because you’re constrained by preexisting metaphors. But I think it
also helps us, especially when we’re targeting an end user who doesn’t necessarily operate [how] we do as
developers. It also helps us to see outside of our domain, which I think is beneficial. … So yeah, it can
definitely help, but also hinder. (T4R6)
This kind of mindful understanding and acceptance of paradox enabled these teams to better
manage and even leverage the constraints they faced. This capacity was bolstered by the sense
of psychological safety and empowerment that was fostered by an enabling social dynamic in the
team. In this enabling state, constraints were perceived not as obstacles but as opportunities.
They were something that could be potentially helpful, rather than certainly harmful. Rather than
killing intrinsic motivation, they provided a creative challenge that stimulated the inherent moti-
vation of technical staff to solve unsolved problems. They empowered teams to do so by setting
boundaries that clarified goals and established a platform around which the team could
coalesce.
Teams experiencing enabling dynamics demonstrated an enhanced sense of playfulness, not just
in the team dynamic but in their approach to challenging problems. These teams projected the aura
of a group playing a game. The game (R&D) had clear rules and boundaries (constraints) and was
very serious in its high stakes, but it was attractive in its challenges (creativity that drove business
revenue) and rewards (scientific achievement, status, and recognition), and enjoyable in the pro-
cess of playing. In such a ‘game’, freedom and constraint were not perceived as oppositional forces
but as vital dualities of the creative process. As a result, these teams were not only willing to accept
the constraints they faced, but they actively imposed constraints on themselves because they found
them to enhance their creativity. In other words, they found freedom in constraint.
This does not mean that teams experiencing enabling dynamics were always creative, or that
teams with disabling dynamics were not or could not be creative. For example, although the
Coatings team struggled with difficult team dynamics at the time of the study, and was experienc-
ing a creative drought, the team had made creative breakthroughs in the past. Overall, all four
teams demonstrated a capacity for creativity. In addition, although the enabling and disabling
dynamics in the four focal teams seemed stable over the course of this study, they appeared to be
malleable over the broader project lifecycle. Many of the teams studied reported changes in the
team dynamic over time. This suggests that enabling and disabling dynamics are somewhat flexi-
ble states that can change – for better or worse – over time, and underscores the impact of these
dynamics on team creativity under constraint.
Furthermore, the identification of these two basic patterns of team dynamics across the four
teams studied is not intended to suggest that the processes of teams deemed to be demonstrating
enabling dynamics were all enabling (positive), or that the dynamics of teams demonstrating disa-
bling dynamics were all disabling (negative/neutral). Indeed, even though these patterns were con-
sistent across the teams, there were exceptions. One example is that the Electronics team was
experiencing some strong differences of opinion and even some conflict related to those differ-
ences, as shown in Table 4. Alone, these could be considered disabling dynamics. However, team
members described those divergent viewpoints as ‘healthy tensions’, and the team came together
regularly to work through their differences. Members described the team as better off creatively as
a result of these discussions, and therefore the ways in which the team processed inevitable con-
flicts and differences of opinion were enabling. Thus, the intent of the enabling and disabling
dynamics distinction is not to suggest that some teams were good and others bad, but that there
were fundamental patterns of team dynamics in these groups that facilitated or inhibited team crea-
tivity under constraints.
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The role of constraint severity
Just as team dynamics seemed to shape the impact of constraints on team creativity, the perceived
severity of the constraint seemed to play an important role as well. The analyses revealed that while
moderate levels of constraint were perceived to be helpful to team creativity, constraints perceived
as too severe were harmful. This was true for process and product constraints alike. For example,
as one team member stated: ‘If there’s too much time pressure, then people probably [won’t do] a
good job on anything …creative or otherwise’ (T4R4). A member of the Electronics team described
the negative impact of aggressive product constraints as well:
You can’t constrain someone so much to send them down the path of enlightenment – you can’t say,
‘Invent a light bulb’, and stand over their shoulder and make them do this. There needs to be a certain
amount of freedom. You need the right environment where you’re not too constrained. But some amount
can be good. If there’s no constraint, then nothing ever gets done. (T3R3)
On the other hand, a lack of constraint can also be harmful. For example, another team member
said:
If you have such broad possibilities it’s harder to – I don’t know, you can flounder for a while. Eventually
you’ve got to figure it out: what is it that I’m going for? If you are given a broad purview, ‘Oh you can
work on anything as long as it’s flat plastic’ … that’s too broad. (T1R1)
These data suggest that there is a ‘sweet spot’ in which constraints hold the potential to enhance
team creativity, and that both overabundance and scarcity of constraints are debilitating. These
findings support prior theory and research suggesting a curvilinear effect of time constraint on
creativity (e.g. Baer & Oldham, 2006; Hennessey & Amabile, 2010; Ohly et al., 2006; West, 2002).
Of course, finding the right balance can be difficult, and this study suggests that the team dynamic
plays a role in shaping the team’s perception of the severity of the constraint (and therefore its
impact). An enabling team dynamic may help to mitigate the potentially damaging impact of severe
constraints, to a certain extent. For example, although the Software team was facing severe time
constraints, which are more likely to negatively affect team creativity as discussed earlier, not only
did the time constraint not seem to harm the Software team’s creativity, but it actually seemed to
have a positive impact as the team was able to use it as a motivating creative challenge. This would
have been unlikely in a disabling team context.
Discussion
The paradox of constraint
We have seen that constraints introduce tension to the creative process by limiting the set of pos-
sible process or product pathways available to creative teams. This tension is representative of a
paradox for team creativity: a tension of freedom and constraint. On one hand, creative teams don’t
like to feel limited or have freedoms taken away. On the other hand, those limitations can provide
helpful boundaries to both provoke and structure the collective creative process. This study extends
creativity theory by bringing these tensions to the surface and examining when they are productive
or destructive for creativity.
The findings of this research suggest that the teams for which constraints enhanced their creativ-
ity were aware and accepting of this paradox of constraint. They understood that they needed both
freedom and constraint to be successful, and they embraced constraints, making them endogenous
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to the team process. These results are consistent with research on other types of tensions and para-
doxes in organizational life. Cameron and Quinn (1988) note that ‘too often actors impose an
either/or choice to treat tensions as dilemmas that could more fruitfully be approached from a both/
and perspective’ (Smith & Lewis, 2011, p. 387). However, when actors can embrace the tensions
and immerse themselves in the seemingly opposing forces, it puts them on a virtuous trajectory that
enables them to see the tensions instead as interdependent dualities – opposites that exist within a
unified whole (Smith & Berg, 1987; Smith & Lewis, 2011).
As revealed in this study and previous scholarship (e.g. Amabile & Gryskiewicz, 1987; West,
2002), maintaining this equilibrium can be challenging, and when constraint trumps freedom or
freedom trumps constraint, creativity will suffer. Of course, constraints are not always helpful. This
research suggests that constraints which diminish process freedom or that are too severe will inhibit
creativity. On the other hand, with the right kinds of constraints and an enabling team dynamic,
creative teams can benefit considerably, in part because they are more likely to interpret constraints
positively.
Theoretical implications
This study contributes to the small but growing domain of literature on the role of constraints in
team creativity and innovation. Researchers have begun to consider the impact of a subset of con-
straints on innovation team performance (e.g. Weiss et al., 2012), building on earlier theoretical
work (Hoegl et al., 2008; West, 2002). These studies have contributed valuable insight into how
singular constraints (i.e. time constraints and financial constraints) operate on creativity or innova-
tion, and the contexts and behaviors that moderate this relationship. My research builds from this
literature to examine multiple constraints simultaneously, including a broader array of constraints
than have been considered in the past. This provided an opportunity to consider the shared proper-
ties of a variety of constraints and similarities in how they operate on creativity.
The typology of constraints generated by this study, and the distinctions it suggests, broadens
the conversation about constraints and has theoretical significance for how scholars may approach
the topic in the future because it is one grounded in R&D teams’ own experiences of constraint.
These categories of constraints are likely to be relevant for many types of creative work in organi-
zational settings, beyond R&D work. The unearthing of the distinction between process constraints
and product constraints, in particular, helps resolve the apparent paradoxes in the literature to date
by demonstrating that process and product constraints act differently and are interpreted differently
in ways that impact team creativity for better or worse.
Researchers have also recently begun to theorize about, and empirically examine, the role of
team-level factors like Team Climate for Innovation (Weiss et al., 2012; Hoegl et al., 2008) in
moderating the relationship between constraint and team innovation. Another stream of research
has explored how the quality of teams’ teamwork and collaboration help facilitate team innovation
performance, including under conditions of constraints (Hoegl & Gemuenden, 2001; Hoegl &
Parboteeah, 2003, 2007; Sethi & Nicholson, 2001). This work has given visibility in the literature
to the importance of team-level factors but, in concordance with differences between the innova-
tion and creativity literatures, chooses to focus on innovation performance outcomes like product
quality and project efficiency rather than creative processes (Hoegl et al., 2008; Weiss et al., 2012).
The present study builds on this literature and takes it into the creativity research domain by focus-
ing particularly on front-end team creativity (as opposed to later-stage innovation) and the team
dynamics that shape the trajectory of the team creative process.
In light of prior research on team creativity, the finding that enabling team dynamics (character-
ized by clarity, curiosity, openness, equity, partnership, and playfulness) enhance a team’s capacity
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580 Organization Studies 35(4)
for creativity is not especially surprising. A host of prior research demonstrates that positive team
relationships (e.g. George, 1996; Shalley et al., 2004), effective communication and collaboration
(e.g. West, 2002; Zhou & George, 2001), clear task structure (e.g. Amabile & Gryskiewicz, 1987),
and effective leadership dynamics (e.g. Oldham & Cummings, 1996; Zhou & Shalley, 2003) are
related to team-level creativity. However, my findings contribute nuance to the question of whether
and when constraints are likely to inhibit or enhance creativity, and hopefully encourage future
researchers to examine team dynamics as potential moderators. The research of Isaksen and Ekvall
(2010), who found that how organizational members manage tensions (through productive debate
or depleting conflict) relates to creative performance, supports these findings as well.
This research also contributes to the literature by emphasizing the role of perception in how
constraints affect creativity. It was revealed that how a team interpreted the constraints they were
facing played an important role in whether those constraints would inhibit or enhance team creativ-
ity. Even teams facing process constraints, which would otherwise be expected to inhibit creativity,
were able to benefit from constraints as a result of a more opportunistic outlook on constraints.
Although researchers have begun to examine the impact of various constraints on creativity, prior
studies have not really explored whether or how subjective (and in this case, shared) perceptions of
constraints affect these relationships. Amabile and colleagues’ (2002) research was an exception,
demonstrating that how time constraints make creators feel (e.g. ‘on a mission’ vs. ‘on a treadmill’)
impacts whether that time pressure will help or hurt their creativity.
By focusing primarily on what I call process constraints (especially on limitations of time and
resources), creativity researchers have privileged a mostly negative view of constraint. The more
neutral conceptualization of constraint in this study allows for a more balanced theory of the role
constraints play in the creative processes of R&D teams, both negative and positive. I argue that
this more neutral definition, as evidenced by the emergent results of this study, is a more accu-
rate representation of how creative professionals in organizations perceive and experience
constraints.
Limitations
Along with the benefits and contributions of this research come several limitations. First, there
are limitations related to the inductive methodology employed in this research. These methods
provided for richly descriptive data, grounded in the experiences of creative teams engaged in
real ongoing projects in an organizational setting, which were ideal for understanding and theo-
rizing about the complex realities and paradoxes inherent to constraints and creativity. However,
such data do not provide grounds for assumptions about causality. Laboratory or survey research
to test and extend the theoretical ideas and relationships developed here would therefore be
beneficial.
Second, although this study was designed to understand the group processes related to team
creativity under constraints, the data collection effort unfolded over the course of three months, and
therefore captures only a portion of the lifecycle of these projects. Therefore, it remains unclear by
what specific processes enabling and disabling team dynamics might emerge in teams, as well as
the shared perceptions that seem to be related to them. Longitudinal field study of a longer duration
would better address questions such as how these dynamics may develop, to what degree they are
malleable, how individual differences affect the team creative process, and how teams and team
members come to be more or less adept at entertaining and maintaining paradoxical ideas about
constraints.
Third, the conclusions drawn from this research are necessarily contextualized to the organiza-
tional context in which they are situated. Gigantech is known to be an exemplary creative
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Rosso 581
organization, which established strong norms and practices around innovative R&D over many
decades. Additional insights could be brought to bear on these research questions by examining
them across different organizational contexts, with different types of creative teams and creative
professionals, in entrepreneurial start-up contexts, and through other research methodologies.
Future research directions
The present research on constraints and creativity yields several exciting directions for future
research. First, the specific social-psychological processes through which constraints affect team
creativity remain relatively unclear. Scholarship in this area would benefit from targeted and thor-
ough investigation into the mechanisms underlying these relationships.
Second, since the aim of the present study was to inductively build theory, quantitative
research methods such as laboratory and survey research would be beneficial to test the theoreti-
cal conclusions developed herein. Such methods would not only allow for testing and validating
the findings of this study but would also provide greater understanding of the causal directional-
ity of these relationships and how contextual and behavioral variables affect them. Researchers
have already begun to do so in the literature on constraints and innovative product development
(Weiss et al., 2012).
Third, future research could also consider other contextual factors at the team-level that may
play a role in when and how constraints affect team creativity. For example, the history of a team
and the way in which it was mobilized has been shown to affect team performance later (Ericksen
& Dyer, 2004). With respect to the impact of constraints on team creativity, it is likely the case that
team norms established at the initiation of the project become routinized in the group process and
influence team dynamics. Future studies could examine the impact team mobilization has in mod-
erating the effects of constraints on creativity.
Fourth, future research could look deeper into how constraints affect team creativity differently
at different stages of the creative process. Recent theory suggests that constraints are more likely
to be beneficial to teams in later stages of innovation, but harmful to teams in the early stages of
the creative process, because creativity requires an undemanding environment (West, 2002). The
present study challenged this assumption, since the focal teams were involved with front-end tech-
nology invention and development rather than innovation implementation. That being said, none
of the teams studied were operating at the earliest stages of idea generation, where constraints
could be detrimental. Interestingly, some anecdotal evidence from this study suggested that con-
straints later in the innovation chain were actually more harmful because they could derail product
launch efforts. Longitudinal designs following teams through the entire lifecycle could bring clar-
ity to this question.
Fifth, one surprising insight from this study was that managers might impose artificial con-
straints on R&D teams with the aim of motivating action or as a symbolic representation of the
importance of the project. It may be that doing so creates a sense of ‘being on a mission’ for
the team, which Hennessey and Amabile (2010) found can stimulate creativity. On the other
hand, this study suggested that if constraints are perceived as being used artificially as strate-
gic tools, teams will respond negatively to them. Such was the case, for example, in the
Coatings team, where the aggressive six-month timeframe was not perceived as genuine, and
was largely ignored as a result. This seems to suggest that where managers deliberately impose
constraints on creative teams, it is important for those constraints to be perceived as authentic.
Future research examining the impact of perceived constraint authenticity on creativity would
be beneficial.
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582 Organization Studies 35(4)
Conclusion
The literature to date speaking to the impact of constraints on creativity has traditionally viewed
constraints negatively, as unwelcome external conditions that kill creativity. The conventional nar-
rative underlying this perspective is that constraints need to be relaxed as much as possible in order
to produce creativity. To the contrary, this study reveals that for creative teams in organizational
settings, there can be freedom in constraint. This freedom comes from knowing what to do with
constraints when they emerge, finding the right constraints in the right balance, and crafting an
environment in which they can be perceived as opportunities rather than obstacles.
Acknowledgements
This article is based on my dissertation work at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of
Business and Department of Psychology. I am especially grateful to my dissertation committee members,
Lloyd Sandelands, Gretchen Spreitzer, Lynn Wooten, and Oscar Ybarra. I also thank Jeff Ericksen, Kathryn
Dekas, John Paul Stephens, Michelle Barton, Georges Potworowski, Jane Dutton, Teresa Amabile, Wendy
Smith, Christina Shalley, Arne Carlson, Scott DeRue, Rebekah VanWieren, the Montana State University
SBE research circle, Carla Moverman, Brooke Horton, Benson Honig, Sophia Tzagaraki, David Courpasson,
and two anonymous reviewers for insightful comments on previous drafts. This work would not have been
possible without the generous and active participation of Larry, Suresh, and other members of ‘Gigantech’,
and without the financial support of the University of Michigan.
Funding
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit
sectors.
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Author biography
Brent Rosso is an Assistant Professor of Management at Montana State University. His research examines the
tensions inherent to creativity and innovation in organizations, and the meaning of work. He holds a PhD in
Psychology and Business Administration from the University of Michigan.
at Montana State University Library on May 24, 2016oss.sagepub.comDownloaded from
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