The Role of Constraints in Creativity

Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 10.29.01 AMFostering an atmosphere of creativity and innovation doesn’t require business leaders to concede all control or throw all rules out of the window.  In fact, the judicious and clear application of constraints frames the challenges that employees are asked to address.  By setting a goal and laying out the constraints, business leaders can create excitement.  Most people like the experience of overcoming some obstacles; constraints are the obstacles that make the finding of the solution exhilarating.

“It is common knowledge that Cirque [du Soleil’s] designers don’t like budgets, deadlines, and limited resources,”says Lyn Heward, president of their Creative Content Division, but she adds, “Privately however, even they will admit that these ‘constraints’ force us to become more resourceful and more creative!  They require us to come up with solutions we’d never thought of before…and they actually become motivators for getting the job done.  In fact, some of our most inspired ideas arise from moderately Spartan situations.”  Cirque du Soleil enforces very strict budgets, and creative teams have to abide with nonnegotiable deadlines.

This is just one of the many paradoxes managing creativity.  As leaders and managers we we need to both establish constraints and free our employees from self-imposed boundaries.  In short, we need to find balance.  Along with budgets, time is of course one of the most obvious constraints.  Deadlines, as daunting as they may seem to creative people, are also their best ally and help them move through the fear of the white page and the unknown.  However, time pressure needs to be handled with a serious sense of balance.  A study by two Harvard Business School professors shows that to develop the creativity of team members it is better in the long run to be careful with excessive time pressure as it easily leads to high levels of stress and potential burnout.  In my experience with creativity, efforts to save time by accelerating the process can sometimes end up costing time.  Creativity often requires patience, because it follow its own rhythm and entails moments of what I call “active inactivity”–moments when creative teams need to lie fallow.  Creativity is quite often about problem solving, and problems by definition have some established factors.  Once the confining factors are clarified, the goal is identified, and balance can be more easily achieved, creative minds are more able to find inspiration to overcome challenges.  A paradox of time management applies:  time constraint is productive, but too much of it, repeatedly, leads to the risk of burnout.  This paradox cannot be resolved by following a fixed rule.  Managing the time of creative teams requires the ability to manage paradox and feel one’s way through it, depending on how your team members react individually and collectively, which talent(s) you are most heavily depending on, and how much leeway with constraints you have in any given situation.

Excerpted from The Intuitive Compass, Jossey-Bass, 2011.

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