Embrace the Constraint!
Creativity is often associated with free-thinking, blue sky possibilities and no limitations. But what if the opposite were true? What if to produce a creative breakthrough we had to restrict our creative freedoms? This wild assertion is not entirely nonsense. Afterall, the great William Shakespeare intentionally constrained his writing composition to iambic pentameter – a structure that limits each line of verse to five metrical feet consisting of one short syllable followed by one long syllable. Or consider a lesser known visual artist, Phil Hansen, who faced the ultimate constraint – he lost the ability to keep his hand steady and could no longer paint. Hansen embraced this physical constraint and reinvented his shaky style into an entirely new art form which included drawing on coffee cups to painting with karate moves.
By embracing extreme limits, we can create a focus that unleashes our maximum creative potential. But rather than tell you about constraints, I’d like you to experience it for yourself through a game.
Here are the instructions:
First: Take a pencil and paper and set a clock for 30 seconds.
Second: List all the things that belong in a kitchen.
Ready, Set, Go.
It’s Not Over Yet!
I have a second challenge for you. Here are the instructions:
First: Pick-up your pencil and paper again and reset your clock for 45 seconds.
Second: List all the things that belong in the kitchen that can be used to have a party.
Ready, Set, Go.
The Debrief: The first exercise was very broad. And although you may not have had much difficulty in creating a list of items, you may have felt a bit adrift when producing this list. Many of the items listed were likely more obvious and familiar and didn’t veer into the realm of creative. Whereas, the second round included a constraint. We added “things that can be used to have a party.” It was a small addition, but you may have found that your inventorying process was slightly more focused. For example, an obvious answer might be serving utensils, trays and platters. But with the added time and constraint, you may have felt the need to stretch the definition of “what can be used to have a party” and started to add some more exotic things (for example, drinking glasses -- to serve as flower vases; or steak knives -- to be used for a knife throwing contest). I have administered several variations of this game with thousands of corporate executives, and I consistently find that despite participants struggling at the end of the second exercise, it forces them to activate a part of their brain that they don’t routinely access and broadens the range of creative possibilities.
But don’t just trust my word, there have been several studies that have set out to validate this hypothesis around creative constraints. One such study was carried about by a group of European Social Psychologists who sought to understand whether “obstacles prompt people to look at the "big picture" and open up their minds?” The finding from their series of experiments suggested that confronting obstacles can create a narrowing initially but ultimately enables people to think more globally, draw connections between disparate concepts and produce more creative solutions.
So, what can you do with this newfound knowledge? Here are a couple of ways to add a constraint to your next challenge to produce a creative breakthrough.
Start with a Simple Constraint
Begin your next problem-solving session by adding a constraint to the exercise. Constraints give us a sorely needed focal point. Here are some examples of simple constraints we can add to our problem-solving formula:
· Time: What if we needed to implement this idea tomorrow morning?
· People: What if we only could work with customers who are under the age of 12?
· Place: What if this could only be done from your couch at home?
· Need: What if we can solve for only the least important customer need?
· Resources: What if we only had $10 to invest in this solution?
Make Your Existing Constraint Extreme
Often when we are overwhelmed by a constraint, we tend to try to avoid or work around the constraint. Instead, we can take the opposite approach and amplify the constraint. I call these extreme constraints. By adding an extreme condition to the problem, it can force your team to think differently about your problem. Here are some ways you can apply an extreme constraint. To illustrate, let’s take a hypothetical problem around hiring shortages of employees for a company.
· Magnify the Constraint: What if the hiring shortage was one hundred times greater?
· Minimize the Constraint: What if there were no people to hire for the next 5 years?
· Reverse the Constraint: What if only employees could hire the companies?
· Combine the Constraint: What if hiring shortages were part of the annual planning process?
· Exaggerate the Constraint: What if we had to hire an entire city?
Constraints are everywhere. But if we embrace the right mindset and harness the power of constraints, we can turn our everyday constraints into opportunities and break ourselves out of our cognitive prisons. Because your next big breakthrough may just require you to limit your creativity to get to the next big idea.