How to Improve Creativity by Adding Constraints

Sometimes the struggle to be creative pushes us to seek more – more information, more resources, more time. In this episode learn why taking the opposing approach – forcing constraints on yourself – may be the very thing you need to unlock your next great idea.

Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #651
The Quick And Dirty

Forcing constraints on yourself can push you into your most creative zone. Try these three types of limitations when you have a problem with no solution:

  1. Time constraint - set a deadline for yourself in order to stop polishing a finished product.
  2. Resource constraint - use only what's immediately in front of you to create a scrappy but solid minimum viable product.
  3. Impact constraint - start by solving a small problem (rather than boiling the ocean) and see what you learn before you expand.

I’m in the business of facilitating interactive leadership experiences – workshops, group coaching programs, etc. Pre-pandemic if you’d asked me to deliver a program remotely, I’d have looked at you side-eyed. Impact without interaction? Couldn’t be done.

But when the pandemic hit, I was suddenly forced to figure it out. And the only way to do it was through massive creativity. I’m proud of – but not alone in – my craftiness. So many of us had no choice but to bring the impossible to life in 2020. Whether homeschooling your kids, working from a closet, or selling to clients you’d never met in person, every one of us has achieved something previously unimaginable.

So what’s the magic that unlocked our untapped stores of creativity? It’s the constraints that the pandemic forced upon us.

A constraint – a limitation or restriction – generally sounds like a bad thing. But sometimes when you’re struggling to get something figured out or over the finish line, a forced constraint is just the thing you need. We all have traditional patterns of thinking. But constraints force us to reimagine – challenging us to make new connections, to look at old things in new ways, and generally to be scrappy in our approach to solving problems.

So if you’re struggling to get something over the finish line and into the market, let’s talk about the different types of constraints you might help you get over the creative hump:

Time constraint

Let’s say you’ve got an idea you want to pitch to your boss – maybe it’s a new product or a new customer service strategy. This could be your big break. You want it to be perfect. And you’ve promised yourself as soon as it is, you’ll schedule that meeting with the boss.

So…the big news here is that perfection isn’t coming. Ever. And without a deadline – forced or otherwise – you’ll be polishing this thing until it becomes obsolete. What you need is not that final data set or a cleaner prototype, but a time constraint. Let your boss know you have an idea you’d like to pitch. Get the meeting scheduled. Now you have a finish line. Your task is to define “good enough,” find a way there, and stop.

Without a deadline – forced or otherwise – you’ll be polishing this thing until it becomes obsolete. What you need is not that final data set or a cleaner prototype, but a time constraint.

I remember building my first ever workshop. I designed it and was getting ready to sell it to a client. But I just needed to revise it first. And then again. And then again. Finally, I created a time constraint. I scheduled a bunch of pitch meetings and had no choice but to be ready for them. I made a simple checklist of what must be complete before I pitched it, and I let the rest go. 

My checklist included:

• Clarity on what problem or challenge this program is solving

• A clear description of flow and sequence

• A balance of education, practice, and conversation

• A discrete set of takeaways for each participant

Those were my essentials. I had to complete those ahead of my forced deadline. The rest could come later.

Now it’s your turn. Where do you need a constraint on your time, and what items will go on your essential checklist?

Resource constraint

In the days of in-person workshops and meetings, I would sometimes kick off an executive session with the infamous marshmallow challenge. It’s a team-building activity that invites leaders to problem-solve collaboratively…and creatively. The gist is that you split your group into teams, each receiving some dry spaghetti, a marshmallow, string, and tape. 

Teams are challenged, using only that strange menagerie of supplies, to build the tallest possible freestanding structure. The team with the tallest tower wins.

The activity has never failed me. I’ve watched a CEO climb on the shoulders of his CFO to the get that final marshmallow on top – pretty much anything goes. But what blows my mind about this challenge is the sheer number of different solutions I’ve seen teams come up with, using only those four items. The creativity seems boundless.

Having just a few resources at your disposal forces you to rethink the basics and how you might leverage them in new ways.

So now back to you and your product idea. What would you do if suddenly your data sets and technology platforms and potential funding vanished, and you had to make a splash with just the most essentials? What’s your version of dry spaghetti and a marshmallow?

Can you find something that is distracting you from getting to the finish line – maybe an excess of available data or too many website plug-ins – and just imagine they suddenly no longer existed? How might you expedite your journey to the finish using only what’s right in front of you?

Having just a few resources at your disposal forces you to rethink the basics and how you might leverage them in new ways.

Impact constraint 

And finally. You need that creative burst to deliver the thing that will change the world.

Or do you?

Maybe your opportunity is to shrink the scope of what you believe you need to deliver. One client, Jenny, reached out to me because she’s been struggling to get her team to collaborate. Months after she began striving to “crack this nut,” as she puts it, she’d gotten nowhere. “There are so many factors keeping them from collaborating and I just don’t know where to start,” she shared.

I challenged her to shrink the scope of her question. “What if,” I proposed, “instead of solving for everything keeping collaboration at bay, we start with just a single instance, and then expand our scope from there?”

So we started with a pair of client managers on her team. When we asked what keeps them from collaborating, they explained that they tend to work in silos, and neither had much perspective on what the other was working on. They simply didn’t realize collaboration could be useful.

To solve just this problem, Jenny decided to repurpose her weekly staff meetings. Instead of her providing updates to the team, she began inviting team members to share with each other some highlights of their current projects. This created a forum in which opportunities for collaboration could be identified, triggering it to happen more organically.

Once Jenny had gotten the ball rolling, she grew comfortable seeking further opportunities. She learned that finding the time, and having the tools and resources to enable collaboration were additional challenges, and she has since made headway on these fronts as well. But one at a time.

Sometimes the key to solving a big challenge is starting with a small one. Often your mini-solution will provide insights to inform a broader one.

Now it’s your turn. Back to that customer service solution you’ve been noodling on. Are you feeling stuck because your imagined solution simply doesn’t meet every customer’s needs? Why not start by solving for just one customer? Pay attention to what problem it solves and why and use that insight to make your solution more expansive over time.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.