How Intelligent Constraints Drive Creativity



" (...) tough obstacles can prompt people to open their minds, look at the "big picture," and make connections between things that are not obviously connected."

Not long ago, Teresa Amabile revealed in an HBR blog post that while she had spent much of her career as a research psychologist showing how constraints can undermine creativity, she had discovered that the right sort of constraints can in fact "stoke the innovation fire."

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer offered the same opinion writing for Businessweek in 2006: "Constraints shape and focus problems, and provide clear challenges to overcome as well as inspiration. Creativity loves constraints, but they must be balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible."

The idea that boundaries and limits can produce boundless and limitless thinking seems counterintuitive and paradoxical. But if we further examine the mechanisms at work when we face constraints, perhaps we can identify which kinds best promote, rather than diminish, creativity.

A starting point is to acknowledge that although many activities traditionally considered creative, from the arts to design to athletics, all seem to be free-form in nature, in reality they are anything but. Each has its own set of limits that governs the performance.

Take comedy improvisation. It is the audience that sets the initial limits by throwing out suggestions (often surprising and contradictory ones) to the performers. The actors then perform with no further planning, and the skit emerges with help from a new, simple rule: accept without question what is given to you by your fellow performers. Every line you produce must build on one that came before, and you can never second-guess that line.

This is a daunting constraint, because you cannot plan, prepare or in any way rehearse. Your only choice is to remain focused and attuned to everything that is happening on stage, ready to react. But this limit makes for nearly infinite possibility and actually frees the performer to be even more imaginative.

That's anecdotal evidence that well-designed constraints lead to creative success. But there's academic research data on this phenomenon too. For example, a study conducted at the University of Amsterdam's Department of Social Psychology proved that tough obstacles can prompt people to open their minds, look at the "big picture," and make connections between things that are not obviously connected. This is an ability is called "global processing," which is the hallmark of creativity.

Participants in the study played a computer maze game. One group played a version that had an obstacle blocking one of the routes, which significantly limited options and made it much harder to discover an escape. A second group had an easier maze with no obstacles. Both groups were then given a standard creativity test containing what psychologists call remote associates puzzles. Three words appeared on the screen (for example, "plate," "shot," and "broken") and the subjects were asked to find a fourth word that connected them all.

Those who had played the harder maze game solved 40 percent more of the remote associates puzzles than those whose mazes had not contained obstacles. The constraint had forced members of the former group into a more creative mindset; their imaginations benefited from struggling in the first task. (The answer, by the way, is "glass.")

An intelligent obstacle or constraint is one laden with creative tension, whether stated in the form of a well-defined problem ("How might we simultaneously decrease both inventory and backorders?") or a challenging goal (NASA's 1990s mission to land a rover on Mars in half the time and a tenth the budget of the previous mission). An intelligent constraint informs creative action by outlining the "sandbox" within which people can play and guides that action not just by pointing out what to pursue but perhaps more importantly what to ignore.

The pressing question for managers here is this: Are constraints preventing or propelling your innovation efforts? There is only one right answer.

This article originally appeared at Harvard Business Review

Matthew E. May is the author of The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything. He is a speaker and advisor to companies such as Toyota,, Intuit and ADP.

Tags: big picture thinking, boundaries, constraints, creative process, global processing, limitations, matthew e. may

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