Constraints are said to ignite Creativity. In fact, when it comes to problem-solving, limitations are why Creativity is needed in the first place. Without restrictions, there rarely is a problem to solve.
But not all constraints are equal. While some limitations drive us forward and set us in an exploration mindset, trying to discover a creative solution within our confined playground, other constraints prevent us from seeing opportunities for innovative breakthroughs. Not all constraints need to be embraced. Some of them need to be challenged, pushed back, or ignored. Distinguishing between the different types of constraints is essential if we wish to generate the most effective creative ideas.
Constraints That Define the Playground
“We got to find a way to make this fit into the hole for this using nothing but that.”
The famous scene from the movie Apollo 13 is a classic example of real constraints that define the playground — the space in which we can play to find a solution. When the mission control crew had to make a square filter fit into a round hole to save the astronauts, they had to play with the materials available on the spaceship. Obviously, they had limited time to do that. And all these constraints were as solid as a rock. They were not added to make the team more creative. These constraints defined the problem, and the creative solution had to work within their boundaries.
These are the constraints that are traditionally said to ignite Creativity. We cannot bend them or work our way around them. Our solution space is confined to the boundaries they set, and our mind becomes more alert and focused, exploring the possibilities hidden within this playground.
The problem is that sometimes we forget that this is only one type of constraint. If we perceive constraints as solid and unbendable, we might push our Creativity to its limit, but at the same time, we will miss the more effective solution to the real underlying challenge. When we confine ourselves to false constraints, we fail to see better opportunities.
“There is no spoon”
Some constraints are derived from false assumptions. Explicit and implicit assumptions cause us to set boundaries around our playground, just like real constraints. If these assumptions are not real, we unnecessarily limit our options and are likely to miss the best creative solutions for our challenge. When we realize a constraint does not really exist or at least can be flexed, we discover a whole new universe of options.
Until COVID-19, many companies assumed work must be entirely done on-site. For most companies, a remote work mode was beyond the boundaries of their playground. The physical location of their sites was a constraint that was born out of this assumption.
As many companies realized in retrospect, this physical constraint was a false constraint, at least in some domains. Nowadays, most hi-tech companies acknowledge that a hybrid working mode (and in some cases fully remote mode) is not only possible — it has benefits unimaginable just 18 months ago. It is not only as good as the on-site working mode. The hybrid approach opens up more possibilities for hiring, cost-saving, better employee engagement, and win-win flexibility.
Realizing a constraint is not real and could be ignored or bent is easy in retrospect. When you manage to do that in real-time and before the competition, you open up a gateway to numerous new opportunities and creative ideas. The best way to do that is to constantly and proactively challenge your assumptions. When you identify an assumption that might be a false assumption, experiment with breaking the boundary it sets. If the assumption is indeed wrong, you will immediately expand your playground. You have more room to play in and more opportunities to discover within it.
Expanding the area of your playground is not a Creativity killer. As much as we believe constraints are good for Creativity, we have plenty of actual limitations and challenges — we don’t need to bound ourselves to false ones.
And this brings us to the third category of constraints: real and solid constraints, but with a magical twist.
Constraints That Redefine the Game
“Has it ever occurred to you that maybe you’re not too big? That maybe this place is just too small?”
For years the automotive industry is in search of the ultimate battery. The range an electric car can travel on a single charge is constantly improving, but it is still smaller than a fuel-based car. And recharging an electric vehicle takes significantly longer time than it takes to fuel your traditional vehicle. For some customers, this might not be an issue. But for people who drive long distances, this becomes a real problem.
When it comes to battery technology, there are quite a few actual and solid constraints. Essentially, it is all about physics. For greater capacity, a battery will weigh more and be larger in size. It will also take more time to charge, obviously. The cost of the battery will also increase accordingly. The technology is continually improving, and yet, the limitations are there and affecting the solution space. Until you realize that if all these constraints affect your playground, maybe you need to move to a whole new playground. If the battery’s capacity is surrounded by all these boundaries, why not try to play the charging game instead. And this is how the idea for wireless road charging was born. Imagine your battery does not run out because it is being charged as you drive. Imagine the road on which you are driving is the charger. Will the capacity of the battery still be an issue?
Eventually, people don’t care about the capacity of the battery. They are concerned with how far they could ride without stopping for a couple of hours charge. If the charging occurs while you are driving, why should you care about how long it takes or how far can a single charge take you? The physical constraints on the battery’s capacity are still there, but when we take our game to a different playground — when we redefine our game — these constraints cease to affect us.
Redefining or changing the game does not mean you quit. It doesn’t mean you give up. On the contrary, your real goal — the real value you are seeking — is still there. If anything, it becomes clearer and more vivid. The future of electric cars has nothing to do with the capacity of batteries per se. It has to do everything with increasing the range of driving.
Redefining the game is easier when you set fuzzier goals focusing on value. Some milestones along the way must be concrete, but they are just milestones and not the real goal you are seeking. Any interim goal that dictates the way as opposed to the destination can be affected by constraints. When the limitations accumulate, and their impact becomes strong enough, it might be a good time to change the game. Doing so along the way will help you discover opportunities that go beyond the scope of the playground you are in.
Changing the game is an invaluable source for creative breakthroughs.
All three types of constraints are affecting Creativity. Confusing these types and our response to each challenge may result in dead-ends or ineffective solutions. When we manage to identify them correctly, and we take the right path in addressing them, we can leverage any constraint and use it as a catalyst for generating creative ideas.