Constraints Make Us More Creative

For a couple of years I was the manager in charge of a self-managing marketing team (I’ll leave it to you to figure out what that actually meant!). My first year with them, we ran the most successful campaign in the history of the organisation. There were many factors that came into play that led to that success, but I am convinced that the biggest one was this: for the first time ever, we didn’t come up with a completely new theme for the campaign – we built on the one that we had been using for the past year.

The biggest argument that I had with the team was over what it meant to be creative. They were convinced that coming up with a completely new campaign theme every year was being creative. My view was that it took a lot more creativity to take a theme that we had been using and give it new life. It’s actually easy to be ‘creative’ if there are no constraints, but without constraints, it’s hard to be strategically creative.

We have to have constraints to channel our creativity.

I was reminded of this when I saw this video that came via Bob Sutton’s post called the Creative Process Gone Wrong:

Sutton is one of the best management thinkers around these days, so I encourage you to read his post to see the conclusions that he drew from this. One of his points is critical:

The process in the video, where a good idea isn’t shown to users or customers, but each internal voice adds more and more, and forgets the big picture in the process, also reminds me of the stage gate process at its worst, where it each stage, the product or service is made worse as it travels along.

We need to use iterative processes to test our innovations, so that back-and-forth process in the video is sound in principle. The fatal error is that the results are never tested. We need to take an experimental approach as we go through iterations. Make a prototype, test it, learn from the test, make it better, repeat. Without the test part, the process fails.

Idris Mootee gets at the same point in his post Enough Overtheorizing of Design Thinking. Let’s Go Back to Design Thinking 101:

The third [design idea to use] is rapid prototyping. This is particularly important to improve speed to market and for markets that are rapidly evolving. The benefit of rapid prototyping includes: 1/ Quickly determine how it is supposed to work 2/ Determine what customers really want 3/ Use abstractions and sometimes math models to improve a concept quantitatively or qualitatively test a prototype to improve concept and to predict behavior 4/Determine whether customer value and business value are aligned (business sense) and if not what’s the gap.

Again, we have to somehow have a market test for our new ideas. This doesn’t necessarily mean focus groups or asking people, but one way or another we need to develop an understanding of what people need, and test our prototypes against this standard. Empathy is one good tool to use here.

The video also shows the problem with having no constraints. To be genuinely creative, we need to have constraints. Here is how Jeffrey Phillips puts it in his post Innovation Paradox: Liberated by Constraints:

Generally speaking, most teams believe that constraints limit their thinking, and their ability to be creative. What’s interesting is that most people who “do” creativity for a living crave constraints. Without constraints, every task starts from a blank sheet of paper, a very long and broad sheet of paper, with no clear starting point. David Ogilvy is quoted as having thanked his clients for a “tight brief” – not underwear, but a clearly defined and tightly controlled set of criteria to achieve.

This is the issue I ran into with my marketers – they thought they wanted a blank sheet of paper. At the end of our campaign, after I had convinced them that it would be better to work within the existing theme and they had done so very successfully, they agreed with me that working within constraints had spurred them to do the most creative work they’d ever done.

It’s counter-intuitive but true – Constraints make us more creative.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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9 thoughts on “Constraints Make Us More Creative

  1. How true. Constraints are the very stuff that eventually produce innovative ideas. For even stronger solutions, look at how to overcome Contradictions. This is the main reason behind Samsung’s meteoric rise in recent years.

    Today’s marketplace no longer accepts “I want A or B”, it demands for “I want A AND B.” Great article!

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