Why Creativity Thrives Under Constraints

Constraints fuel not limit creativity

The following is a guest piece by David Burkus.

There’s always excitement around a new project. We’re excited about the possibilities, a little nervous about the outcome, and unhesitant to dive in and get started. That excitement doesn’t last forever. Instead, it typically comes to a predictable end when we hit something inevitable: constraints.

We’re told there isn’t enough time to implement what we first thought, or that the budget was slashed and now we have to produce the same outcome with less money. We run into constraints around people, the market, the interests of stakeholders, and more.

Just about every influence on our once new and exciting project also brings a constraint. It’s enough to pull all the energy and excitement right out of us. We can lose interest or become frustrated by our once shiny new project. We start to push back against the constraints, claiming we need more time or more budget money.

While trying to ease up on the constraints isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s important not to try to remove them entirely. Despite what our frustrated selves might believe, constraints are a driving force behind finding creative solutions. “Art consists of limitation,” said renowned author G.K. Chesterton, “The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.”

Matthew May, author of “The Laws of Subtraction” puts it this way: “Michelangelo’s status of David would not be considered the masterpiece it is had he chosen to mold it from clay rather than sculpt it from marble, a subtractive endeavor involving an unyielding and unforgiving material.”

Michelangelo didn’t complain about how hard it was to create a statue from marble instead of clay. Instead, he embraced the constraints, knowing the end result would be all the more remarkable.

In many ways, constraints shape our ability to understand the problem or project at hand. Limitations build a framework for understanding the problem we’re trying to solve or the project we must finish.

Without constraints, we’re often at a loss for where to even begin. Moreover, when we better understand what is feasible and what is not, we’re able to judge the ideas we come up with. A project without any constraints might seem appealing, but there’s no real way to measure success.

In addition, research on individual creativity implies that we can actually open our minds to more creative ideas and better connect unrelated thoughts after we experience constraints. When researchers asked participants to work their way through a computer maze, they found that those individuals who encountered more obstacles and solved a more constrained maze were better able to solve creative thinking problems immediately after finishing the computer game.

Something in our minds comes alive when we are hit with obstacles, and it isn’t just frustration. It’s creative potential.

As counterintuitive as it may sound, if you’re stuck on a project or clueless about making an upcoming decision, consider adding a few more constraints to jumpstart your creativity. Here are a few suggestions for adding intelligent constraints:

1. Put in a new deadline
Yes, we hate deadlines. At the same time, most of us realize the power of deadlines to force us to get work done. To the extent that we have control over these deadlines, most of us use that influence to push the deadline back. Few us of us would ever consider lobbying for less time.

But less time builds a sense of urgency that can heighten our focus, and that focus can keep us churning out innovative ideas.

2. Limit the number of people on your project
While it might be tempting to reach out for more help when a project has stalled, an over-reliance on outside add can atrophy the creative abilities of your team. Instead, consider limiting the number of people allowed to influence the team.

You could do this by requiring a set number of team members, or by putting a limit on the number of times your team can seek outside help. Instead of looking outward, your team will be forced to look inward for solutions and, in doing so, will have to boot up their creative thinking.

3. Make an “and” constraint
Most of us are familiar with idea that work requires tradeoffs. We know we can’t have everything or do everything. The stakeholders around a new project often have desires that conflict, and our default response is to rely on tradeoffs. Claiming you can’t have it both ways actually reduces the constraints we face, and can dampen our thinking.

Instead, structure a problem in a way that satisfies conflicting interests (such as “How can we reduce call waiting times but increase customer satisfaction?”). The answers might not come at first, but the constraints will push your thinking in untried ways.

It’s easy to look at constraints as the enemy of your ability to innovative. Constraints are frustrating and confusing, but so is the creative process. As more and more work shifts from industrial to knowledge work, we’re going to need that creative process even more. And that creative process needs constraints to function properly. Creativity doesn’t just love constraints; it thrives under them.

Are you framing constraints as a barrier or boost to your ability to innovative?

David Burkus is the founder of LDRLB and assistant professor of management at Oral Roberts University. He is also the author of “The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas“. To learn more about David, visit his website at www.davidburkus.com.

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