How To Use Constraints Of Time Money & People For Better Innovations

Creativity is usually associated with open spaces, uninhibited freedom, and a lack of anything to stifle expression. However, sometimes it can be beneficial, even essential, to build walls, make rules and impose constraints on ourselves in order to get our creativity flowing.

The fact is that unlimited options are very difficult to contend with – they keep us staring at the proverbial blank page. Our minds need some guidance; if there are no rules or restrictions in place, it's hard to begin the creative process and even more difficult to remain focused or purposeful.

Most creative endeavors have limitations imposed upon them. If you are an engineer working on a new product, you have directives, including purpose, target market, materials, and size, among others. When writing a story, you may have length or style restrictions to contend with. There is hardly a real-life example of creation that exists without some kind of constraint.

Constraint For Successful Innovations

In my experience, I’ve found that using constraint based innovation was the only way to transform an organization. Without constraints, individuals and teams fall back on “what worked in the past”. Typically a team would propose to achieve an objective with a set of resources required such as 25 people for 2 years and $5M. As I look back on all of the products I’ve been involved with — the team that got 100% of what they asked for rarely — in fact NEVER — delivered a breakthrough product.

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In a constraint based innovation approach, I listen to their proposal as to the resources they would need — I would then go off an contemplate their request — and then come back to the team and tell them — sorry but I couldn’t come up with the resources requested. I would tell them that “given the resources we could come up with — we need to achieve the objective with 9 people, 14 months and $2M.” I would typically get the “thats impossible” response — but the team would go off and realize they needed to throw out the old “play book” and come up with a whole new way to achieve the objective. In my experience — these are the teams produced true game changing innovations.

We have romantic visions of uninhibited artists and inventors simply throwing whatever comes to them onto their chosen canvas, but that kind of raw creativity can rarely be sustained. In order to harness your creative energy and abilities, constraining the options gives a sense of direction and purpose that can fuel momentum and open up new creative possibilities you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

Creative Art Challenge

Noah Scalin is an artist who created the wildly successful daily art project called a skull a day for a year. Yes – he created a unique piece of art using drawing, sculpture, painting — any other media he had around — to create representation of a human skull. Each day he challenged himself to create a skull that had to be unique and created within his free time during that 24-hour period. Those are some tough guidelines. He couldn't sit back waiting for inspiration to strike: he was forced to constantly seek out new materials and ideas to fill up his “blank page”. The results speak to the power of creative production within rigid guidelines. While it started off as a personal daily art project — it went on to become an international community of skull fans sharing their art.

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Creative Writing Challenge

Another example is the famous challenge that Hemingway and his friends had. They challenged themselves to create a story using only six words. One of the best outcomes from this challenge was — “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”

Acts of creation without limitation exist in reality only in the most extreme cases. Inventors don’t generally wake up one day and say, “I’m going to invent something today.” They look around at what there is and what needs improving, and work with the resources they have available.

Anyone can come up with random, fantastical ideas without direction or purpose. Imposing criteria is a more effective way of stimulating creativity, and can spark true innovation.


Listen to this episode of the Killer Innovations Podcast: Generating Creativity Through Restriction (Constrain Based Innovation) S11 Ep13

Show Credits:

  • Image Credit: iStock
  • Music by Bensound

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