We tend not to like boundaries and constraints. They are, by definition, confining. Many of us have chafed against them since childhood, and still manage to resent them in adulthood. The idea of being limited, of cutting off options and opportunities, is something we resist. This is particularly true when we are trying to be creative.
Ironically, though, constraints are a valuable, useful and necessary part of the creative process. They serve an important function, and we ignore or try to avoid them at our peril. There are, of course, natural restrictions that we need to deal with as part of the creative process. The painter is constrained by the size, texture and preparation of the canvas they choose. The actor is constrained by the size of the theatre and the dimensions of the stage. The dancer needs to stay within the boundaries of the walls that make up the rehearsal space. Those limitations are given, although within those specific physical boundaries the ability to create is theoretically boundless.
The challenge is what happens when we have no other constraints to work with. To a writer, there is nothing quite so intimidating as a flashing cursor at the top of a blank document. You could write absolutely anything. Your options are limitless. Your potential is unbounded. And that is precisely the problem. When your choices are boundless, the greatest difficulty is in making a choice. Without a constraint to wrestle with, we struggle to do anything. And the easiest option, in this case, is often to do nothing.
The writer with an editor starts to have some constraints. A journalist needs to produce 800 words on a specific topic, with a specific angle, by 5pm tonight. Or an analyst needs to get a 3,000 word conference paper submitted by Thursday at midnight. An author is contracted to produce an 80,000 word book that relays the history of a key event, with delivery of the manuscript due at the end of September. All of these represent constraints that provide focus, guidance and impetus. The clarity of a deadline is supplemented with a clear expectation regarding topic, length, and angle. Within these boundaries, it is a question of planning how to deliver the results in a way that respects the intent and honours the commitment that has been made.
At the same time, artists and innovators alike frequently embrace more complex constraints and boundaries. Take the innovator that wants to build a rugged laptop for children that uses no toxic materials, can network with other laptops with no WiFi, can be charged by alternative sources and will outlive normal computer life expectancy. The inventor that wants to make water purification as simple as drinking through a straw. The painter that limits his form of expression to a single colour. Or the author that writes an entire book as a lipogram, for example deliberately using only words that don’t contain the letter ‘e’. All of these are examples of innovation being driven first and foremost by the imposition of arbitrary—but necessary and important—constraints.
In these instances, constraints are about forcing a situation where—to be successful—a solution has to respond to objectives or work within given parameters. This is not about intentionally frustrating, blocking or preventing something from happening. Instead the goal is to promote inspiration, stretching what is possible by setting a significant hurdle that must be cleared. By looking beyond what is normal and typical, the problem is reframed in ways that forces new perspectives and demands new insights in order to be solvable. Interestingly, we are perfectly accepting of such arbitrary limitations when we play games (for example, insisting to someone that they can’t move their hand, fall or put their knee on the ground is pretty odd behaviour, unless you are in the process of playing Twister). And yet what is fun and entertaining in a game seems odd and unusual when applied to other contexts.
Let’s talk about constraints, though, in terms of how they help us to create, innovate and operate within the practical reality of our every day lives and work. Limiting brainstorming in a workshop to only 20 minutes can produce more ideas than without the deadline. Being given five minutes to make an executive presentation produces a marvellous focus in identifying what is important and what is inessential in making your point. Russian programmers are reputed to be some of the best in the world, because they worked first with extremely limited computer time, and then within the bounds of very limited memory. And much of humanity has learned to be succinct on Twitter, despite the arguably arbitrary requirement to express ourselves in 140 characters or less.
This has a fundamental influence on leading others, as well as on managing ourselves. The most creative solutions are a product of a compelling objective and meaningful and appropriate boundaries. If we want to set our teams up for success, we need to not just give them a goal that they care about; we also need to establish the guardrails within which they have to remain. Well defined projects depend as much or more on defining what is out of scope and excluded as it does articulating what will be provided. Problem solving, team building and even work activities can be primed for different outcomes by the constraints that are imposed. That might be as simple as a deadline, as silly as forcing someone to incorporate a particular phrase in a presentation or as meaningful as solving a problem without resorting to a particular technique, approach or piece of technology.
In getting past our own limitations, boundaries can be equally useful. We are all human, and fall into ruts, routines, patterns and procrastination. Using constraints to force ourselves to work, think and experience in different ways can help enormously in overcoming obstacles and kickstarting creativity. The possibilities themselves are limited only by your imagination: Commit to writing anything, whatever comes to mind, without editing, backspacing, questioning or criticizing, for the next 15 minutes. Make yourself take a new way to work every day for a week. Require yourself to identify five ways to solve a problem that adopts a different approach than the normal way you would do it. Make yourself develop a deliverable backwards, from conclusion to introduction. Every single one of these strategies will make you see the world from a different perspective, provide you with different insights and learn different techniques to doing things you already assume you have mastery over.
One of the greatest examples of what is possible in terms of creativity, innovation and problem solving in the face of boundaries and constraints is the story of Apollo 13. The example everyone loves to cite is based on the scene in the movie with the memorable line, “We have to find a way to make this fit into the hole for this, using nothing but that.” This was by far not the only problem that needed to be solved, nor was it the only time where constraints came into play. The command module needed to be powered up after being shut down, in a sequence that limited the use of ampere hours to what little power remained on board. And the spacecraft trajectory needed to be aligned through not one but two separate manual burns without a navigation system. Start up procedures that normally took three months to develop were built in three days. An alignment technique based on the position of the sun in a porthole supported the burn. And a square peg was indeed inserted into a round hole.
Creativity is not always the product of unlimited freedom, boundless possibility and endless resources. It is, far more often, the result of limitation, constraint and the need to do the impossible with less than the ideal. If you want to stimulate innovation and support creativity, asking for the moon is almost assuredly the wrong way to go about it. As history shows, figuring out how to get back from the moon with a sock, some gaffer tape and a great deal of hope is a far better strategy.