Creativity Thrives Under Constraints

If you’re coming up with the best conditions to invent something new or create a masterwork, we’re guessing that you might envision something with as few boundaries and limits as possible. Unlimited budget, as much time as you want, and the freedom to create anything you want, all of these things sound like a dream come true for creatives and innovators. But new research, and lots of examples from history have shown that sometimes restrictions and constraints can be the best things to foster innovation.

Why Constraints are Good for Innovation

As innovation becomes more and more critical to solving the big challenges of the 21st century, people have been trying to figure out how they can manufacture the conditions for successful innovation. The Harvard Business Review found and reviewed 145 studies that looked at how constraints can impact innovation and creativity. It turns out that having no constraints is actually worse than having no limits.

Doesn’t the Best Innovation and Art Come from Total Freedom?

While it might look like a lot of inventions and works of art came from having no rules, all creative pursuits are governed by rules or limitations, some of which are beyond the control of the creator. Everything from IKEA hacks to comedy improv to filmmaking happens within limits and constraints.

So maybe some awesome things come from creativity with constraints, but isn’t it better to work without any limits?

Motivation to Solve Problems

Without constraints, people are free to settle into complacency and choose the “path of least resistance;” they can go forward with their first idea, instead of being forced to look for the best idea. Constraints can be a way to provide focus, helping establish a clear problem, process, or goal. And by creating a box, people are forced to think outside of it; since the obvious choices and connections are no longer an option, we have to look at more information to come up with a novel solution. We can be forced to look at a problem, theories, and materials from a completely new perspective.

Intelligent, Constructive Constraints

When you are choosing the constraints for a given project you want to make sure that they encourage creativity and thinking outside the box but not so restrictive that they leave your team frustrated and demoralized. There are 3 main types of constraints that you can implement when you’re planning a project, and you’ll want to find a balance of the different types based on your project, your resources, and your team members.

  1. Limited Inputs:

    Jazz pianist, Keith Jarret, famously recorded a best-selling live album on a broken, out of tune piano because it was the only one that was available. Limiting the resources, human capital, or time available to complete the project can challenge you to come up with creative ways to use what you have. Limited inputs are also the most likely type of constraint that is beyond the control of the project manager, so if you’re choosing to further limit input, make sure that you have left your team with enough resources and time to succeed.
  2. Enforced Process:

    If you’ve ever used a project management system like Agile or SCRUM, you’ve used an enforced process as a constraint. But an enforced process might also be something like Pixar’s Braintrust method, which is designed to keep their film projects focused and provide candid feedback from a more objective standpoint than the people who are working on the project from day to day. One of the benefits of enforced process constraints is that they can often be applied to multiple projects, allowing your team to get comfortable with the process and to thrive within it.
  3. Specified Output Requirements:

    If you’ve ever watched Iron Chef or Great British Bakeoff, you’ve seen specified output requirements. In Iron Chef, every dish across 5 courses has to include the secret ingredient. This output requirement is how professional chefs ended up presenting judges with trout ice cream, stained glass sushi, and radish congee. It’s also how you can end up with 10 totally different creative takes on a 3D Bread Sculpture in a GBBO Showstopper Challenge. Specified output requirements need to refine the stated goals of a project in a way that presents a challenge to the participants. They also need to be clearly outlined at the beginning of the process to avoid frustrating team members and making them feel as though they have wasted time on a solution that is now no longer within the criteria.

Set your team up for success

Constraints encourage us to look at problems and resources from different perspectives, and come up with innovative solutions and create bold new creative works. Instead of limiting us, constraints can provide the direction to keep a project focused and the motivation to look beyond the obvious and conventional to find something new.

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