15th July 2013

Thinking Inside The Box. Does Constraint Kill Creativity?

The popular notion of creativity is that it’s best achieved when there are
no constraints. With complete freedom comes complete creativity.

Remove the obstacles of budget, style guides, mandatories and you’re on the path to creativity. Unshackled from everything that’s holding them back your team can now come up with great ideas. Or so the logic goes.

The truth is quite different.

Not only do constraints not hold you back, they can actually boost creativity. As counter intuitive as that sounds, what it indicates is that constraints can work as road signs. The good ones point you in the right direction and lead you to your destination. The wrong ones make you go around in circles. Have too few and you could get lost. Have too many and you’ll end up nowhere.

Constraints are a reality of life. The laws of physics and chemistry, the rule of law and monetary constraints are all limitations we deal with on a daily basis. Other constraints may seem entrenched but on inspection may be based on past assumptions — your business model, or which customer needs your business serves, for example.

So how do we recognize the right constraints, and discard the wrong ones?

While it’s not always easy to tell in advance what limitations, or mix of limitations will work best, there are some key indicators that can guide you in recognizing the right constraints.

One of the first yardsticks to use is to ask if a constraint is moving you towards clarity, or is it just complicating things. If it’s helping clarify the problem, keep it. If not discard it.

Another good guide is to evaluate whether the constraints enhance your understanding of the problem. Do they help you understand why you’re doing what you’re doing? User needs, for example, are great because they provide focus and rationale. If the constraint confuses or overly narrows scope without good reason, remove or replace it. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different combinations of constraints. Remember, clarity of purpose is your goal.

Here are a few examples of how constraints helped boost clarity and creativity.

The small screen solution

The explosion in smartphones has meant more and more online companies are developing mobile apps for their services. In many cases the app comes before the website. One of the unexpected benefits of this has been that a phone’s small screen has forced discipline on companies and developers. It’s meant companies need to ask themselves what’s really critical to communicate to the customer, and which functionality customers really need. A 4” constraint of real estate hasn’t meant a lack of creativity, in fact as many apps prove, it’s meant a big boost in creativity.

This simplicity-oriented mindset can be used for any function. Ask yourself, what’s the one thing you want your customers to know or do at any given point of interacting with your business? If you could only communicate with them via a 4″ screen, or a business card, or a 6 second Vine movie — what would you say, what would you ask of them, and what would you want them to feel afterward? Once you’ve cracked that, chances are, all the other stuff that once seemed important now seems superfluous.

Houston, we have a problem.

In 1970, Apollo 13 went on a lunar mission. The launch was successful, but a fault inside the space module meant carbon dioxide exhaled by the astronauts built up in the module. On the ground, engineering teams had to figure out a way to clean the air with only the equipment on board. The unbelievable constraints of lives at risk and time running out drove them to a totally unexpected solution. They figured out a way to use the command module’s square air cleaners in the lunar module’s round receivers. Who says a square peg can’t fit in a round hole?

The truth is creativity needs some grit, much like the grain of sand in an oyster; constraints push us to think beyond the norm and come up with elegant, beautiful solutions.

When constraints become mandatory, we need to recalibrate how we work. The economic downturn has forced us to be more innovative, leaner, faster and smarter. From this difficult time, companies have started collaborating with former competitors, built new relationships with customers through social media and created products and services that are better, and cheaper.

Thinking outside the box is well and good, but if the box is the right size and shape, it might be just what your creativity needs.

Sources: Mashable – creative constraints, HBR Blog Network – Boosting Creativity Through Constraints

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