Leveraging Constraints for Creativity

Leveraging Constraints for CreativityCreativity remains one of the most nebulous and elusive capabilities for organizational performance. Yet there is more knowledge and science available today than ever to help us through the challenge. Creativity comes from more than just issuing a challenge.

One of the most counterintuitive aspects of the creativity process is the adaptation and leveraging of constraints. Most of us don’t want constraints, and we certainly don’t like constraints. We don’t want to be told when to be finished, what size box it needs to fit into, or what font should be used. We like our freedom. Yet the evidence demonstrates that constraints enhance the creativity process.

On the Harvard Business Review blog, Uri Neren shares some of this data in The Number One Key to Innovation: Scarcity. In it he shares that after a review of 162 methodologies around innovation, one of the most common threads is scarcity. This is especially true in

When working with teams on improvements or projects requiring creativity, we find an important step is providing what we call monuments and commandments. Monuments are those aspects that cannot be moved. The team must work around them. While it is important to let teams know where the monuments are, it is also important that they know where they aren’t. This prevents them from adding false constraints, which can certainly limit the intended result.

Commandments are those aspects that must be part of the solution. There may still be a thousand details that need to be worked out, but some of them are predetermined. This is just another form of constraint.

The addition of monuments and commandments to a team will always initially feel like a burden to the team, but in my experience, they are necessary to prevent wasted effort and increase focus. Both of these factors lead to more creative and more effective solutions out of the team’s effort.

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Jamie FlinchbaughJamie Flinchbaugh is co-founder of the Lean Learning Center, and co-author of the book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road. You can find his blog at www.JamieFlinchbaugh.com.

Jamie Flinchbaugh




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No Comments

  1. Neil Hopkins on January 19, 2011 at 10:43 am

    Hi Jamie

    I agree completely. One of the worst things I’ve ever been asked to do is make a “cool campaign”.

    “On what budget?” I’d ask.

    “What do you think you’ll need?” They say…

    When the sky’s the limit, it’s hard to actually nail down anything. But when you know that you have to use Times New Roman and make the product fit onto a single DL flier, then you’ve got something to work to!


  2. Jamie Flinchbaugh on January 19, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    Neil, that’s exactly right. It happens all the time.

    I was asked to develop a leadership development program. I asked what their time constraint was. They said “tell us what it would take” so my response was “1 week a quarter for 3 years.” We settled on 3 days and then could get to the real work.

    This is also why strategies are important. You can always scrape by accepting any work that comes along, but to build something that really lasts and has originality you must have a focus provided by strategic decision making.

    Jamie Flinchbaugh

  3. Mary Wilson on January 19, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    Jamie, this is an intriguing (and timely) post. I hadn’t really thought about innovation in terms of monuments and commandments. I’m currently (as a subcontractor) working on a federal government project that involves management teams charged with solving long-standing, complex people problems. It’s a struggle to keep the monuments and commandments from limiting their thinking about potential solutions. Part of the struggle is how far we can impose a “scientific” problem solving process that works well for technical problems onto a set of “sticky” human capital issues.

  4. Jamie Flinchbaugh on January 19, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    Thanks for the comments Mary.

    Of course, anything involving the federal government involves plenty of monuments and commandments. Two thoughts come to mind:

    1. It does help to list them all. Yes, it can be overwhelming. But this is better than allowing people to throw them up as a reaction “oh, we can’t do that because of this…”. Get them out in the open.

    2. How you write monuments and commandments can either constrain or enable innovation. For example, we were working with the EPA on writing emissions regulations for off-road vehicles. Their first plan would have, as written, essentially locked in one and only one solution. We convinced them to write it so that the net impact result was the same, but the degrees of freedom on coming up with solutions was more open.

  5. Danie Vermeulen on January 22, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    Hi Jamie
    Thanks for an interesting post. I like the monument and commandment concept – this awareness will provide crucial ground rules to help teams navigate and save time and wasted energy to get to innovative alternatives.
    For me another important aspect is to find a way to capture and reuse the learnings of teams who have previously navigated the same “knowledge maze”. By “charting”, sharing and banking the lessons learned through the same monuments and commandments we could also provide proven “dead ends” and “fast tracks” to help others to avoid making the same discoveries over and over again.

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