01 Sep 2016
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Research Brief: Cultivating Creativity through Competition

by Erin Peterson

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Creativity is often considered a mysterious, impossible-to-harness force. But a new working paper by Assistant Professor Daniel P. Gross suggests that it can indeed be nurtured with the right incentives.

Gross studied the question in the context of winner-take-all logo design competitions, where freelance designers submit potential logos, and companies pay a few hundred dollars for the logo they like best. Throughout the process, designers receive one- to five-star ratings from the clients on their work, and iterate on their designs in response to this feedback. They also see the ratings given to their competitors.

Using analytical software that evaluates visual similarities between designs, Gross compared each submission with prior entries by the same designer, and related the similarity to the number and quality of competing entries present at the time of submission.

Designers with high ratings who faced little competition tended to make tweaks to their original design, rather than radical changes. At the other end of the spectrum, when competition became crowded with many other high-quality contenders, these same designers tended to stop participating.

The ideal creativity-inspiring scenario? “Originality was greatest when a designer was in the presence of one or two competitors with similar performance,” Gross says. “It was time for them to go big or go home.”

Gross suspects his findings might apply in procurement settings generally as well as the many other scenarios that demand creativity, even when money isn’t on the table. “With sharp incentives—be it status, recognition, or financial rewards—balanced competition can motivate creativity.”

“Creativity Under Fire: The Effects of Competition on Creative Production,” by Daniel P. Gross, HBS Working Paper.

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