Better Creativity Through Constraints
My latest piece for Harvard Business Review Online:
Conventional wisdom holds that the best way to boost a team’s creativity is to unshackle them from constraints. The less they have to worry about, the more open they’ll be with their ideas, the theory goes. Budget? Unlimited! Ideas from outside? Bring ‘em on! Different business model? Consider it entertained! Unfortunately this approach can actually be counter-productive.
Some constraints are realities that must to be dealt with — laws of physics, or perhaps a budget. Other constraints may seem immovable but upon inspection are actually assumptions based on the past — your business model, or which customers and needs you serve, for example.
Constraints have a Goldilocks quality: too many and you will indeed suffocate in stale thinking, too few and you risk a rambling vision quest. The key to spurring creativity isn’t the removal of allconstraints. Ideally you should impose only those constraints (beyond the truly non-negotiable ones) that move you toward clarity of purpose.
If a constraint enhances your understanding of the problem scope and why you’re doing what you’re doing, leave it in. Insights into 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; it’s not always easy to tell ahead of time what the right mix will be for a particular project or circumstance.
Beautiful, brutal clarity is your goal.
There are no hard and fast rules about finding that “just right” mix to achieve this, but here are some examples of how clarity and creativity can be enhanced.