Thinking Inside the Box: Constraints can Spur Creativity

It’s 5:04PM on Thursday evening and I have roughly four hours to complete this blog post before my Friday morning deadline. My responsibility doesn’t come often; in fact, I generally have six weeks to write it since posting duties rotate amongst the Board members.

Why, then, if I had six weeks to write this post am I just now sitting down to write it the night before, with four hours to go on this flight?

Better yet—why is this story relevant?

Next question: say I asked you to implement new innovation processes in your city. Where would you begin? How would you?

You might declare your priority is building schools, training people, creating jobs, gender equality, the like—and you’d proceed to attempt to gain consensus around these, rank them, develop large action plans, draw up endless budgets. Of course, given more choice most of us would prefer a little more money, a little more resourcesand a little more timeBut, as IDEO founders and brothers Tom and David Kelley write in their book, Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All“constraints can spur creativity and incite action, as long as you have the confidence to embrace them.”

Kelley elaborates: often when IDEO consults with top executives on sparking innovation within their organization, they don’t know where to begin.

“But if we ask them what they could do in a week with a shoestring budget, you’d be amazed at the great ideas they come up with.”

In fact, after being exposed to the constraints-concept, one such executive told IDEO that during a kickoff meeting for a normally six-month project, he told his team they had one day to do the whole project. At the end of the day, he planned to give the team extensions of a week, then a month. He believed that if his staff focused on prototyping through many ideas rather than trying to plan for a perfect one, the finished product would be more robust and innovative.

As the Kelley brothers explain, a few boundary conditions—whether budgetary, time- or resource-related—can sometimes spark more creativity, not less, as they assist in framing challenges.

So how might we incorporate constraints into our lives in order to leap into action?

Apart from waiting until the last minute to write your blog post (and I know I’m not alone here), the Kelley brothers offer a few tips:

  1. TACKLE A “DOABLE” PIECE OF THE PROBLEM. To get under way, work on the easiest part first. How do we decide the easy part of a challenge? The Kelley brothers suggest a concept they call “constrained voting”. After a brainstorm session, there may be a hundred ideas. Instead of simply voting for their favorites, they sometimes focus their attention on the bite-sized chunks. The project leader might say, “pick the ideas you could explore within the next two hours,” or, “pick ideas that you could prototype by the end of the week.” They constrain options by looking at how they can progress right now.
  2. NARROW THE GOAL. Solving global poverty is too big. Set smaller, achievable goals you can act on. Work at a library in your local community. Tutor a child in your town. Narrow the scope until you can see how to get started.
  3. CREATE A MILESTONE (AND CONNECT IT TO A SOCIAL CONTRACT). When IDEO works on a long innovation project, they build in a series of check-in sessions, peer reviews and interim milestones to create a “drumbeat” of activity. Project teams tend to experience a surge of enthusiasm and productivity whenever a deadline looms. Instead of establishing one big deadline, build in as many “mini-deadlines” as possible to keep the team’s energy up throughout. We risk losing focus in the middle of a three-month project but if you set up a phone call every Tuesday with your peer advisors, or a quick presentation every Friday with the client/decision-maker, you get more than twenty peaks of intensity rather than just one.

So if you’re working on a big presentation, schedule a walk-through or a dry run with your team a few weeks before. The live prototype will show what’s working and what’s not. Then schedule a second “dress rehearsal” the week of the presentation.

Or, if it’s a blog post, set a timeline for topic selection, drafting and finalizing to ensure that Friday deadline.

[For additional inspiration, refer to Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All.]



Hilary Braseth
RPCV Guinea (2011-2014)