• Sean Grace

How Constraints Stimulate Creativity

The great Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky once said “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.”

Constraints are usually perceived as impediments to creative expression, unwelcome boundaries to otherwise free and unfettered imagination. We envision the creative genius improvising, uninhibited, playing in an infinite sandbox of ideas, limited only by his resources, talent, and his will to create.

Over the many years that I’ve worked with creative types, the main complaint I’ve heard is not the abundance of resources, but rather their lack. Not enough budget, not enough time, not enough tools, not enough available talent, not enough autonomy, and too many restrictions on the deliverable. Yet, in the end, what I’ve witnessed is that most talented artists, designers, and developers end up producing highly innovative concepts and solutions that more often than not exceed a client’s expectation all while working within parameters that are initially viewed as overly constraining. What’s going on here?

According to a report by the Harvard Business Review summarizing a series of studies around creativity and constraints, “when there are no constraints on the creative process, complacency sets in, and people follow what psychologists call the path-of-least-resistance – they go for the most intuitive idea that comes to mind rather than investing in the development of better ideas. Constraints, in contrast, provide focus and a creative challenge that motivates people to search for and connect information from different sources to generate novel ideas for new products, services, or business processes.”

Stravinsky saw a correlation between confinement and innovation. Studies confirm this view, showing that novelty is more often borne from restrictive rather than unbridled circumstances. The creative mind is more stimulated when limits, rules, and boundaries force novel solutions whereas the unbound mind defaults to a more frictionless and risk-averse modality. How often have we seen storied movie franchises with unlimited budgets spend their way towards bloated mediocrity leaving audiences wondering “where did the magic go?”

In my own workshops on Design Thinking, I always present several constraints around a particular design sprint project. These constraints fall under three types - Input, Process, and Output.

Input constraints are resource-based such as budget, time, materials, and human capital.

Process constraints include the steps, rules, and procedures around the ideation and development process, including the manner in which a team communicates, brainstorms, and works together.

Output constraints dictate the factors that define the end result such as regulatory, standards, color, style, size, branding, etc.

Initially, my workshop teams cringe at the constraints complaining that if they only had more budget, more material, more time, they could truly flourish. But inevitably, after they’ve accepted the terms, they get to work and begin innovating in truly novel ways. They begin to thrive on the challenge and search for unconventional ideas that they may not have considered if the constraints were less severe.

Process constraints have received some push back from organizational dynamics experts who cite research that shows constraining a team’s or a person’s process may be less productive than constraining inputs or outputs. Leaving a design team to their own processes gives them more agency over problem-solving, fueling motivation. However, some research seems to show that even restricting communication protocols, such as requiring politically correct speech, has its benefits for team cohesion by building trust.

Of course, too many constraints can have the same effect as no constraints, demotivating teams and suffocating the creative process entirely. Finding the sweet spot where the constraints motivate unconventional thinking while giving enough latitude for novel ideas to flourish is the best of all scenarios.

So brace yourself when the budgets are bottomless, deadlines are flexible and resources are endless because it’s there where your innovation will more likely run aground; where your creative mind will default to a path-of-least-resistance and your ideas will more likely be uninspired and conventional. But when a client or your boss proposes a project with a series of resource, process, or output limitations, embrace the challenge and prepare those creative juices because innovation is just over the horizon.