Quantity Over Quality: Why You Shouldn't Pay Workers to be Creative



  • Employees paid to be creative may feel pressured, limiting their output — both creative and non-creative — overall
  • Workers who choose to be paid for their creativity may initially produce creative ideas, but those ideas soon run thin
  • Employees paid solely for output are more productive and in that process also end up producing creative ideas

"Farmer in the dell" rebus puzzle
"Spoiled milk" rebus puzzle
"Accounting" rebus puzzle
"Royal flush" rebus puzzle
"Crossing paths" rebus puzzle
"Constructive criticism" rebus puzzle

What’s the tougher challenge: coming up with a collection of new ideas, regardless of quality, or only coming up with creative ideas?

For anyone who’s experienced the pressure to innovate, it isn’t surprising that putting a premium on creativity makes the challenge more difficult. 

Just ask Matthew Diffee. As a cartoonist for the New Yorker and Texas Monthly magazine, Diffee must generate 10 new cartoon ideas each week. Rather than obsessing over creativity, Diffee simply gets to work, with a focus on output — and plenty of coffee.

“I start with a full pot of coffee and an empty sheet of paper. By the time I’ve emptied the pot of coffee, I’ve filled up the piece of paper,” he says. “I’ll write down stuff that isn’t a joke, rather than write nothing down, because I do believe in that momentum. You get one idea — even if it’s not a great idea — it gives you sort of a sense of confidence.”   

That’s a smart approach, according to research conducted by Steven Kachelmeier and Michael Williamson, accounting professors at the McCombs School of Business.

In a pair of studies, Kachelmeier and Williamson considered the effect of paying test subjects for producing creative ideas. What they found offers an important lesson for companies: While it can boost short-term idea generation, paying for creativity doesn’t make workers more innovative. On the other hand, emphasizing quantity over creativity results in a larger pool of possibilities, some of which are quite creative.

“If you tell people to turn off your creative filters and just produce, then we get a lot more output from them — good, solid output — without losing any of the creativity,” Williamson says.

Motivating Creativity

Although it is generally believed that if you want to encourage a certain behavior, you should reward it, “when it comes to creativity, that’s not necessarily good advice,” Kachelmeier says. It turns out that employees paid to be creative may feel pressured, limiting their output — both creative and non-creative — overall.

To test the effectiveness of paying for worker creativity, Kachelmeier and Williamson asked study participants to produce rebus puzzles, which use words and images to represent names, words, or phrases, such as writing the word “eggs” over the word “easy” for the phrase “eggs over easy.” (For examples of actual rebus puzzles produced in the study, see sidebar.) For their purposes, “creativity” was defined as ideas that were both original and good.

In the first study, published in the Journal of Accounting Research, the researchers asked all the participants to be creative, but paid test subjects based on one of four metrics:

  • For taking part in the study, regardless of the quantity or creativity of their ideas
  • For the creativity of their ideas
  • For the quantity of their ideas
  • For the quantity of their ideas weighted by their creativity

Then, another group of people was brought in to score the resulting rebus puzzles for their creativity.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who were paid regardless of their output were the least productive, while the creativity-only group also produced fewer ideas. When they looked at the final two groups, however, the researchers found something interesting: Compared to the creativity-weighted group, the group focused exclusively on quantity had greater output of ideas — and was no less creative.

“They get a lot more done, are certainly more productive overall, and have every bit as many creative ideas as those who sort of censor and restrict their output to only creative ideas,” Kachelmeier says.

It’s this self-censoring that appears to limit creative output, the researchers say.

“The more we get them to think about the need to produce creative output, they start censoring themselves,” Williamson says. “They are almost trying too hard at something that for most individuals is just natural — to produce creative output.” Those participants paid for productivity, meanwhile, just kept plugging along with their work, generating some creative ideas along the way. “The neat thing is in that process, spontaneously, very creative output comes out,” Williamson says.

Attracting Creativity

In the real world, where researchers don’t assign our professions, workers who consider themselves creative may seek out jobs that reward creativity. That’s why in their next study, published in The Accounting Review, Kachelmeier and Williamson allowed participants to pick between two contracts: either pay for output alone or pay for creativity-weighted output. After making their choice, participants produced rebus puzzles, which were again graded.

While the creativity-weighted group started strong, their innovative ideas soon ran thin. Why did that happen? Williamson explains the test subjects’ thought process. “Well, I have one or two good, creative ideas in my head right now, so I must be creative,” he says. That thinking led certain test subjects to opt for the creativity reward. After putting their initial creative ideas down on paper, “then ‘pfft,’ they flop,” Williamson says.

Meanwhile, even as they focused on output, the quantity-based contract group again managed to produce some high-quality ideas. “If you reward for productivity only, you get just as much creative stuff — and a lot more stuff” overall, Williamson says.

For cartoonist Diffee, this focus on quantity is necessary to get his creative juices flowing.

“I can’t sit around and wait for a great idea to come to me. I have to have ideas every week,” he says. It’s the momentum gathered from encouraging lots of ideas that results in winning ones.

“To me, inspiration never hits a standing target,” Diffee adds. “You’ve got to be running, and then the ball will fall in your hands, and then you get the touchdown. Instead of standing there on the scrimmage line [saying], ‘Hit me, hit me! Then I’ll start running.’” 


Faculty in this Article

Michael Williamson

Associate Professor of Accounting McCombs School of Business, The University of Texas at Austin

Michael G. Williamson, associate professor of accounting, received his B.S. from Louisiana State University and his Ph.D. from Indiana University...

Steven Kachelmeier

Professor of Accounting McCombs School of Business

Steven J. Kachelmeier, Randal B. McDonald Chair in Accounting, received his B.B.A. from the University of New Mexico and his Ph.D. from the...

About The Author

Jeremy Simon

Writer, McCombs School of Business

As a writer for Texas Enterprise, Jeremy covers business-related research and news from the University of Texas at Austin. In addition, he manages...


#1 The study is interesting. If

The study is interesting. If the test subjects were told to be creative, and that they were only paid based on someone's judgment of how creative they were, the motivation is kind of nebulous. Of course there will be no results, because the test subjects don't know what their reward is going to be. Give them a more concrete set of criteria for reward based on quantity, and they're going to pump it out. The "creative" judgment of the output is almost beside the point. Tell someone their creativity will be judged, and they'll be more cautious about what they submit. Tell someone they'll be rewarded regardless, and they'll work fast. But it's a tenuous connection between this study and the real world. As the cartoonist in your example knows, creativity flows better when the mind starts moving, even if initial output is "not as good." Professional creative types know this and build it into what they produce. They'll need to burn through a lot of mediocre ideas until they get the one that hits the jackpot. Of course, this is a major generalization. A cartoonist with a daily or weekly cartoon in a publication gets paid no matter the quality of what he turns in (though bad quality will eventually get him fired). A freelancer doesn't know when that next check is coming, so the more they create, the faster those better ideas will flow. The freelancer isn't going to get compensated for all the bad ideas he has, nor should he be.

#2 I remember reading a few

I remember reading a few years ago that Richard Branson didn't appear to do a lot whilst working at Virgin. But somewhere in that day, there was a spark and he always managed to think of an idea or direction that positively impacted the company. I worked in a PR agency a few years ago and had several "brainstorming" meetings with their creative team. You could tell these "creatives" were burnt out as they all tried to stampede in with their ideas. They went for quantity NOT quality. Without tooting my own horn, a lot of people tell me my ideas are good. But I do not consider myself a creative. Some of my ideas were thought about years ago and are only now coming to fruition. I have learned not to rush creativity or try to force it. When I have done this in the past, I come up with terrible ideas that looking back make me cringe. The best way to get creative is to travel. Go to places with lots of culture or scenes. Open your mind, relax, have fun and wait for the magic to happen!

#3 Sounds like good

Sounds like good advice...keep the ideas cranking!

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