When the Box is the Limit

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Walter Vandervelde, author of the compelling new book When the Box is the Limit. Walter believes that creativity is a mindset. Creativity is his profession, and he adores inspiring and helping people to develop their creative potential. Be it the young and hungry wolves that are his students or the experienced professionals in need of a creative sparkle.

According to Walter, constraints stimulate the process of creativity and innovation, and when the box is the limit, creativity often comes to the surface organically as a natural solution. Constraints should never be a reason not to innovate, but instead serve to accelerate creativity, the driving force behind innovation. Without further ado, here is the transcript of that interview:

I love this quote – “If you can’t find the solution within the box, you probably haven’t checked all the corners” – please tell us more about the philosophy behind it

There are many misunderstandings when it comes to creativity. One of them is that creativity needs an unlimited amount of freedom. Expressions such as ‘the sky is the limit’ and ‘thinking out of the box’ are so common, that any form of restriction is often used as an excuse to avoid certain challenges. We always need more means, more time, more insight, more space, etc. That’s not only a pity, but simply groundless. Several studies prove that creativity, in the form of original and valuable ideas, often springs up from limitations. Therefore, constraints should never be a reason NOT to come up with creative ideas as a driving force for change and innovation.

My intention with this book is to give people inspiration and real handles – in the form of techniques – on how to use constraints as a stimulator for their creativity. In other words: I try to let them check all the corners of their own ‘box’ in order to come up with surprising ideas and solutions.

Please tell us more about the interplay between creativity, ideas and concepts.

When the Box is the LimitConcepts are the result of ideas that spring up from creativity. So, it al starts with creativity, which is the driving force behind innovation and change. For some people creativity comes as an innate talent. They’re just lucky to be born with lots of creative potential. Those people have to learn how to use that potential in a way it serves the goal. They can come up with very unique and surprising ideas but in one way or another, these ideas should mostly be tweaked and molded before they become usable concepts.

Other people might be less gifted with creative abilities, but with the right training, they can learn and master the skills to enhance their initial potential. It’s also these people who will benefit the most from techniques and tools like the ones I offer in my book.

But foremost I’m convinced that creativity is primarily a mindset. In a professional as well as in a private context, it is the way you look at things. The way you embrace challenges, not being satisfied with the first idea that comes to mind, always digging deeper, always being curious. When an organization stimulates and anchors that kind of mindset, the ideas and concepts will flourish in a natural way, like spring flowers in a meadow.

How can teams be encouraged to embrace both the idea that “creativity loves constraints” AND “a healthy disregard for the impossible”?

You’re referring to a quote by Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo. Asserting that creative ideas only spring up from constraints, would be incorrect of course. Not all constraints will be stimulating, but I urge people to at least stretch their creative mind and find solutions and ideas within the limits of their own box.

Personally, I am not a big supporter of cross-cutting methodologies. Such structures often have quite a few ‘gaps’ and that applies equally to methodologies that attempt to convert any kind of limitation into an idea or any other form of creative solution. That’s exactly why I chose to offer five different techniques. Each one of them has its own specificity, depending on the particular challenge. I do offer suggestions in that domain, but I deliberately refuse to give too stringent instructions where you should use which technique. I want users to discover that for themselves, as it would be very unfortunate to put options aside. If one technique doesn’t seem to work quite that good for your challenge, then try another one. Or use different techniques in a row intentionally, to obtain a whole range of new and surprising ideas.

You touch on the work of Navi Radjou (author of Frugal Innovation) in your book, please tell us more about your Frugalizor tools

It’s a very straightforward one and very easy to use. By reading many innovation stories based on frugal principles, I discovered a pattern in the mechanisms that always seemed to come back. I carefully selected twelve of these mechanisms and incorporated them into a technique that I named ‘The Frugalizor’.

The technique is developed for a broad kind of applications, mainly to enhance your product, service, process or any other subject you’re working on. The focus is on frugal, which means that you might consider making your subject more available and affordable to a large target group with limited resources.

I named each one of the twelve mechanisms in a way that they become more or less self-explanatory. For instance: Defeaturing, which means eliminating as many features and elements as you can. Or Useraizing, where you try to target as many user groups and user profiles as possible. Or Robusting, where you aim to make your product or service more robust, durable and reliable.

I’m intrigued by the concept of the Tree of Trade, please tell us more about how this works

You could call it a ‘find & replace’ technique. The reasons why limitations are often such a strong stimulator, is because they force us to think in alternatives. And that’s one of the basic skills of creativity. In ‘Tree of Trade’ you can use that skill in a three-step process: First you start by listing the essential elements that are inherent to the subject of your challenge. Then you look at the needs they fulfill and try to come up with alternatives that cater to the same needs. In the last step, you will ‘translate’ the ideas – which often can be quite crazy – into genuinely useful solutions.

Is time pressure water or fire to creativity?

As with many things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Research in this area shows three important things. First of all, time pressure – and stress as a result – can stimulate creativity, as long as it is perceived as meaningful and important to reach the ultimate objective of the assignment. Secondly, a too long period of dedicated concentration on one single task will finally block one’s creativity. Regular intervals where you switch from one assignment to another, is a much better idea. And thirdly, when people are given total freedom in time scheduling their creative assignment, creativity will also diminish or even fade out after a while. So the keywords are: meaning, balanced structure and variation.

But in reality, it also depends from person to person. According to my experience, people with a creative mindset feel the pressure of time rather as a stimulus than as a brake on their creativity. As long as that time pressure does not last too long or becomes a daily routine of course.

I’m intrigued by your Propeller tool, what can you share about how this tool works?

Walter VanderveldeThis is one of my personal favorites: a true problem solver. Do you also wonder why it’s often so much easier to solve other people’s problems than your own? The reason is we’re so easily blinded and intimidated by the constraints that surround our problem. It looks like they’re inevitable, like we’re in a maze and can’t find our way out because we’re standing in the middle of it. In such case, we actually need to be lifted up to see all of the obstacles that keep us from reaching the exit. That’s one part of The Propeller.

The other part does the opposite: by asking multiple ‘why’ questions, you get to the core of the problem. Why is it a constraint and what exactly does it impede? So you dig deeper and deeper and with each answer may come a better solution.

The beauty of it is its balance between résumé and analysis, between flying higher and digging deeper. Its design gives you a perfect overview and you can work on different ‘obstacles’ at the same time. I strongly recommend to use this canvas in a team session, because it demands quite some creative energy and perseverance. But the results are astonishing.

How do radical constraints beget radical innovation?

We all know Henry Ford’s famous quote “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. What Ford basically did was leave out the gist, because the question he asked himself – be it consciously or not – may have been: “How do I make a (horse) carriage without horses?”. That’s quite a radical constraint, isn’t it?

And there are many other striking examples in our current world. Think of Amazon for example. Jeff Bezos – now voted the richest man in the world – started a bookstore without a physical store. Or Dyson who developed a vacuum cleaner without dust bag and a fan without blades. A circus without animals? See how Cirque du Soleil tackled this challenge. Airbnb (a hotel chain without hotels), Uber (a taxi company without vehicles), … they have all radically innovated the market by dealing with radical constraints.

Why are teamwork, restrictions, and competition so helpful to creating surprising ideas?

Since a number of years I let my trainees and students do an exercise that I call ‘Angels and Devils’. In short, it comes down to playing two teams against each other, each of which has to come up with 26 words starting with one of the letters of the alphabet. The same assignment is given to individuals who are not in a team and do not receive the alphabet as a compulsory framework. You clearly notice that the combination of teamwork, competition and the imposition of a restriction (the 26 letters of the alphabet in this case) dramatically increases creativity and speed. Each and every time.

The fact that teamwork enhances speed and creativity is quite straightforward: there are multiple people involved and they can build on each other’s ideas. The competition factor is all about time pressure and as I told before, it can really stimulate creativity under the right circumstances. The third factor might be the most surprising one. But indeed, a restriction that seems like an obstacle at first, quickly becomes a structured framework allowing people to come up with ideas faster and of a higher creative value.

These findings are the base of another technique in the book, called ‘The Casual Constraint Contest’. In fact it’s a highly activating team game to generate ideas based on random restrictions.

Your tool The River is an interesting approach to getting people to approach a problem from different angles, why does it work?

It’s astonishing how people continue using the same thinking pattern over and over again, even though they know it won’t bring them new solutions. People are often risk averse, while creativity is all about daring to come out of your comfort zone.

For instance, my book describes a few cases where ugliness or low quality was the biggest constraint. In all of those cases, instead of fighting this constraint, people just did the complete opposite by accepting and embracing it. The ideas that came out of this approach were not only stunningly creative, but often became a real market advantage.

This way of thinking inspired me to develop The River, a metaphorical view on an obstacle. Imagine you’re running towards a well-defined goal, but suddenly a wide wild river crosses your path. What are the options? Well, I offer six: you can swim, bridge, block, bypass, sail or fish the river. And just to highlight one of them: fishing the river was exactly what people did in the above example of ugliness as a constraint. They had the smart and creative mindset to accept the river as it came and get the best out of it. Explaining each of the five options would probably take us too long, but anyhow, they are all metaphors for specific approaches to a problem.

Bonus Question: Why is Belgium such a hotbed of creativity and innovation thinking?

There is indeed a fair amount of creativity and innovation in our small country. I think there are two main reasons for that. First of all, we are small, at least in terms of land surface. We don’t have a lot of natural resources and because of the high level of social protection, our wages are high, which does not always make us attractive to investors. That’s quite some constraints, isn’t it? To play a role at world level and to excel in something particular, we are obliged to use our creativity persistently. So here again, a great example of how constraints stimulate creativity.

Secondly, Belgium is not a homogeneous country with one language and one national identity. In fact we unite several different cultures, and – despite some internal disagreements from time to time – we have managed to do that successfully for almost 200 years now. That demands lots of flexibility, empathy and open-mindedness, which are all qualities that are typical to a creative mindset. So, perhaps it’s in our DNA somehow 😉


Thanks Walter Vandervelde for sharing some insights from your new book When the Box is the Limit !

For more information about Walter Vandervelde, please visit his website.


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[author image=”https://www.disruptorleague.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Braden-Kelley-70.jpg”]Braden Kelley is a Director of Innovation and Human-Centered Design at Oracle, and a popular innovation speaker and workshop facilitator. He is the author of two five-star books, Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire and Charting Change, and the creator of a revolutionary new Change Planning Toolkit™. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter (@innovate).[/author]

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