Innovation Skills
60 minutes

Constraints are often the source of our best ideas. Think of Twitter's 140 character limit, or the 18 minute limit for TED Talks. We invite participants to write a list of all the constraints on a current project, then make them worse or introduce more severe constraints to force more radical, ambitious approaches. What new ideas does this provoke?


This technique offers a quick route to innovative suggestions. It challenges participants to be much more bold and groundbreaking than usual, in response to the unusually harsh constraints they are presented with.
In Detail
“When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.” – TS Eliot

Think of a current project or task. Would it be easier to complete it with more money, more resources, more time? It's tempting to wish away constraints like these.

The panacea for creativity is often thought to be unconstrained thinking – no boundaries, no rules, blue skies. But the truth is, we’d be lost without constraints. And if you look, you’ll start to see them absolutely everywhere.

Some constraints are time-based - a good example is TED talks. The golden rule for those doing a TED talk is that you must keep it within 18 minutes. It’s one of the key reasons behind the format’s success. 18 minutes is long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention. It turns out that this length also works incredibly well online. It’s the length of a good coffee break.

But the main reason is that the 18-minute length also works much like the way Twitter forces people to be disciplined in what they write. By forcing speakers who are used to going on for 45 minutes to bring it down to 18, you
get them to really think about what they want to say. What is the key point they want to communicate? It brings discipline.

Another example is Twitter’s (original model of) 140 characters. You have to be very concise, but you can communicate a lot of things really successfully.

In a business setting, our two biggest constraints are usually budget and time. Unconstrained resources would be nice, right? Like more money, more staff, more time?

It's hard to get out of this way of thinking, which is why for many the biggest constraint we face is our own mindset.

There are many areas of innovation that are driven by constraints. Think about whether we'd be making such great progress on renewable energy if there were unlimited oil reserves underground.

We challenge you to think differently about constraints: rather than seeking to remove them, we should welcome and embrace them. And we should proactively add more constraints to force our thinking down unusual and innovative paths.

Researchers found that when you put up a fence around a playground, children will use the entire space – they’ll feel safe to play all the way up to the edges. But if those walls are removed, creating a wide-open playground, the space the children choose to play ion contracts: they stay towards the middle and they stick together – because that’s what feels safe.

This is what happens in the creative process. When there are no clear limits in the brief itself, we aren’t sure about what boundaries to explore and push up against. This means that we are stimulated by rules and boundaries.

Think about the project you're working on. What are its constraints? Write them down as a list. You might have a limited budget, a deadline, or a certain amount of people on your team.

Then, think about what other constraints you could introduce, or how you could make your existing constraints even more severe:

  • Budget: what would you do if you had half the budget? How would this force you to change your approach? Could you come up with more creative ways of delivering the same outcome for half the budget?
  • Deadline: what would you do if the deadline was suddenly brought forward? What could you deliver? What could you strip out to simplify or streamline your idea so you could meet this new deadline? This is a good way of identifying non-essential elements that might be added in the next phase of a project.
  • Resources: what would you do if you suddenly lost half your team? How could you deliver the project with severely depleted resources?

This technique is essentially forcing you to be more creative within constraints. The more you try this, the more you'll realise that creative thinking isn't about thinking outside the box - it's about thinking inside the box.


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