Innovation Is Shaped By Constraints, Not Freedom

innovation is shaped by constraints, not freedomOddly enough, this makes sense.

Typically, when one things of creative settings, one thinks of the open sea, or an endless skyline, or a blank canvas.  All of these things have one common theme between them: endless possibilities.

However, if we really need to think creatively, we almost need to have some boundaries.  Why?  Well, one reason could be that the idea of limitless opportunities (or a “blank canvas”), kind of causes our brains to freak out.  You know how the hardest part of doing a project is actually starting it?  It’s like that.

While our minds would like to believe they’re ninjas of abstract thought, in reality they lack a little without much-needed constraints.   We’re not really creators, but great adapters. When faced with a problem, humans like to figure out how to fix it.  Not create something totally new.

Innovation isn’t really anything about creation, but rather finding solutions to existing problems (IE Constraints).

Once we wrap our minds around that concept, we can start addding constraints to our work.  Scot over at Pimp Your Work gives a great example of adding a little constraint to whatever it is you do.

Being a photographer and being able to creatively shoot pictures of anything is limiting of your creativity. Instead, shooting only sunsets Pimps your creativity.

 37Signals entire business was built on this concept.  They believed that they created better solutions to problems quicker by having constraints on time and money.  I don’t think I need to say anything about how that worked out for them.

The worst thing you can do to stifle creativity is start with a blank canvas.  Instead, try zeroing in on one problem or aspect, and figure out how to fix it.

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{ 11 comments… add one }
  • billiga fotbollströjor March 17, 2017, 9:38 am

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  • Jan Bak June 25, 2008, 3:02 am

    I guess I also have to agree. Innovation is the result of problems occurring from time to time. With this our creativity arises to make resolutions.


  • Joel April 4, 2008, 8:21 pm

    Glad you found my pic thought-provoking.

  • glen February 12, 2007, 12:24 pm

    Excellent point. The manner in which the constraints are presented (or perceived) is critical.

  • kriisp February 12, 2007, 5:06 am

    I agree with you that innovation is shaped by constraints. The interesting question though is the nature of these constraints. What type of constraints works for innovation? And what type works against?
    I believe you can talk about “beautiful constraints” that challenge creativity and enhances innovation. But you can also have a different type of constraints that dampens the mood and makes the task impossible.
    If for example the management gives a innovation task with very tight deadline this can be seen as an impossible condition and can then dampen the mood – and make the team uncooperative. But if the management explains itself and why the deadline is so important, the task can be viewed as more of a challenge that calls for unprecedented amounts of creativity – and then you have a more “beautiful constraint”.
    So, maybe the beauty is not in the constraint itself but rather in the way this is communicated?

  • glen February 8, 2007, 4:10 pm

    Very good points Jeff. Creativity by itself depends on freedom. Maybe what I should have titled this piece was something about “focused” creativity.

    Freedoms + a focused goal = Best Outcomes.

    Also, good point about how there IS creation inside of adaption. Many times we don’t know what we need until we create it. What I was trying to articulate is that humans are best at creating when there is a need.

    Good stuff man, good stuff.

  • Jeff De Cagna February 8, 2007, 12:48 pm

    Glen, I agree with you up to a point. I believe that constraints do inspire our creativity, but in the cultural context of innovation there also must be a strong element of freedom that allows creative alternatives and options to receive full consideration. In organizations, innovation faces nothing but constraints, i.e., there is never enough time, money or other resources. Introducing greater freedom into the system permits flexibility and openness, which is essential to making innovation happen.

    Also, I would submit that even in adaptation there is creation. 37signals took a key strategic insight, adapted its approach to technology accordingly and created new value for an audience that was not served by other tools. This is essence of innovation. The act of creation is in the value, in meeting the unarticulated or unknown need, even if it is delivered through adaptation.