How Intelligent Constraints Drive Creativity

Translation: If everything’s too easy, we won’t bother getting to creative about it.

Translation of translation: Creatives function best when we have obstacles to overcome.



by Matthew E. May

Not long ago, Teresa Amabile revealed in an HBR blog post that while she had spent much of her career as a research psychologist showing how constraints can undermine creativity, she had discovered that the right sort of constraints can in fact “stoke the innovation fire.”

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer offered the same opinion writing for Businessweek in 2006: “Constraints shape and focus problems, and provide clear challenges to overcome as well as inspiration. Creativity loves constraints, but they must be balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible.”

The idea that boundaries and limits can produce boundless and limitless thinking seems counterintuitive and paradoxical. But if we further examine the mechanisms at work when we face constraints, perhaps we can identify which kinds best promote, rather than diminish, creativity.

A starting point is to acknowledge that although many activities traditionally considered creative, from the arts to design to athletics, all seem to be free-form in nature, in reality they are anything but. Each has its own set of limits that governs the performance.

Take comedy improvisation. It is the audience that sets the initial limits by throwing out suggestions (often surprising and contradictory ones) to the performers. The actors then perform with no further planning, and the skit emerges with help from a new, simple rule: accept without question what is given to you by your fellow performers. Every line you produce must build on one that came before, and you can never second-guess that line.

This is a daunting constraint, because you cannot plan, prepare or in any way rehearse. Your only choice is to remain focused and attuned to everything that is happening on stage, ready to react. But this limit makes for nearly infinite possibility and actually frees the performer to be even more imaginative.

That’s anecdotal evidence that well-designed constraints lead to creative success. But there’s academic research data on this phenomenon too. For example, a study conducted at the University of Amsterdam’s Department of Social Psychology proved that tough obstacles can prompt people to open their minds, look at the “big picture,” and make connections between things that are not obviously connected. This is an ability is called “global processing,” which is the hallmark of creativity

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