ATD Blog

Group Flow: Don't Let Time Constraints Curb Creativity and Engagement

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

There is a human need to see progress quickly, so we can stay motivated, focused, and in flow. Conversely, creativity and innovation suffer under the pressure of tight deadlines, and such external influences impede group flow. While time pressures might be considered by some as merely a challenge, group flow tends to fade in the presence of these strict deadlines. To achieve success, the group’s attention must be fully on the task—not on time constraints.

Plenty of research has shown that high-pressure deadlines impede creativity. It’s not that we can’t be creative under pressure, but ideas and solutions are even more creative if more time is allowed. What’s more, people are usually more creative when they’re in a good mood and thinking positively, which can be countered by schedule pressures.

Because status reporting remains a requirement in most organizations, though, many groups succeed by having an external intercessor. This champion protects the group’s need to be undisturbed and provides resources to support the project when upper management is tempted to interfere. General Leslie Groves protecting Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project offers a clear example; another example is how Kelley Johnson isolated the innovative Skunk Works.

But debating the advantages of constraints continues. Consider Pixar, which advocates the notion that creativity flourishes under deadlines. Morning meetings, referred to as “dailies,” are used to review and provide input on each animator’s work from the previous day. However, under the leadership of Steve Jobs, the company worked on only one film per year. This relieved intense schedule pressure and allowed ideas to germinate and still be incorporated into the production.

My experience and that of other experts reflects the operating strategy of Pixar: short-term time constraints encourage focused thinking, while long-term (and perhaps arbitrary) schedules and deadlines detract from creativity.


The brain cannot be creative for long periods of time—particularly if it’s not accustomed to doing it every day. Many creative thinking techniques force artificial time constraints. Case in point: Dr. Edward de Bono purposefully designed his thinking tools to have short durations. Because we are more conditioned to be contemplative and assess all the risk ahead of time, he pushes the pendulum far in the opposite direction. Agile development experts also recommend working in “iterative, time-boxed periods” and limiting work-in-progress.

Bottom line: Flow requires immediate feedback. People are encouraged with ubiquitous creative ideas, rapid convergence, and task completion (or at least progress to the next stage). The group gains momentum and members become energized. Additionally, observable progress (though it may not be quantifiable) provides evidence to management that the investment is well allocated toward profitable productivity. In fact, decades of experience have proven that using creative thinking techniques and agile development reduce cycle time by 20 to 60 percent.


In this series, I’ve been focusing on group flow as a means to achieve innovation, not just to experience group flow as an end goal—although that is completely legitimate. We like our work and are better at it when we experience flow. Consider time-critical operations, from an accident victim in the ER to a downed power plant to a special-forces military operation to a satellite that’s gone dark. In each case, the team can be in flow, mentally challenged, and lose track of time. However, innovation in the sense of doing something new is avoided. Only verified procedures should be used in these instances. So, a group can be in flow in high-pressure situations, but it is less likely to produce innovative output.

No doubt, time limitation is a balance that needs to be considered based on group composition, objective, and project complexity. If a team is struggling to make progress, there are several strategies for moving forward:

  • Experiment with creative thinking techniques, the iterative process of design thinking, or fast and flexible agile processes. 
  • Ensure decisions are made promptly. 
  • Work with higher levels of management and customers to establish progressive goals and convey the benefits of group flow to increased productivity.  
  • Be moderate in imposing weekly cadences and overall project schedules.

Ultimately, leaders looking to provide fertile ground for group flow. Innovative output will grant autonomy to the group, including schedule goals and time constraints—especially since autonomy is a top predictor of team performance.

About the Author

Laurie Buss is an aerospace engineer, market analyst, business consultant, fine artist, and an expert in workplace sustainability, efficiency, and strategy development. After a 23-year career working for and consulting to corporations like Hughes, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Thales, and SpaceX, she now enables companies to cut meeting time in half, eliminate up to 80 percent of inefficiency in manufacturing and business processes, and increase profits with fresh ideas for product development and improving business operations.

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