Use constraints to fuel your creativity

Quickly, think of as many white things as you can in ten seconds.  Now think of white things in your kitchen.  Did the more constrained prompt spark more ideas? Yes.

Recent research on the best approach to creating novel things says that . In other words, constraints help you focus on what matters.

Apple knows that . Google is popular for which have resulted in ‘perceived innovations’ in user experience. The ever popular 37 Signals, maker of online business management apps, pretty much .

So, how does placing constraints to fuel creativity look like?

Fueling creativity

A few months ago a client of mine let me know that they’re in the process of opening another restaurant and that this one will focus on Mediterranean food. With months away before it opens, they asked me if I had any ideas on whatever.

I won’t go into full detail about our discussion, but what I will do is show you how placing constraints changes the ideas you generate by shifting your perception.

Time constraint

1st Approach: How much time does the average family spend at a restaurant? An hour to an hour and a half (we Mexicans like to take our time).

  • What if we created a concept restaurant experience so they only spend 30 minutes? What would that look like?

2nd Approach: What if the menu was composed of only five different meals?

  • What activities would need to be done so the client stays an hour and a half with us? How would the customer experience change?

3rd Approach: How would Apple do it?

  • If Steve Jobs walked in, what would be the ‘crappy’ stuff he would tell us to eliminate?

Money constraint

Another constrain often times is money. For example, how much does the average family spend at a restaurant? $50 – $80

  • What if we have a policy that clients spend less than that? How would our plates change? Meals? People?

The questions above are things I thought out rather quickly with no real goal in mind, just thinking out loud. The answers will be all over the place, but that’s the key. To unlock your brain you have to ask the ‘unquestionable’.

The key is asking the questions that actually matter. This is tricky.

Closing thoughts

The thing about constraints is it forces you to look at different angles to approach a problem. It’s also and look at the opposite of placing constraints, , for coming up with unseen ideas.

While my example applies to a restaurant, you can use constraints on anything. How have I used constraints? I’ve used it to accelerate my basketball conditioning in less time, to write short blog posts that get to the point, to tweet less stuff but that actually matters, to read less but get more out of it.

Fuel your creativity!

How do you use constraints in your work, life?

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  • Hello Jorge !
    I agree that the constraints are fuel for creativity and particularly when these constraints relate to shortage of time and money. It is often the path to simplicity as happens with a lot of Mediterranean nutrition.
    But it can also be the path to discontent or frustration and is therefore fundamental that exist a balance and a clear conscience that the purpose is realistic and it’s not just a dream a Midsummer night!
    It is for me also true that ask the right questions is crucial to define the problem and that both can be done at home to prepare lunch how to choose the restaurant or deliver the value expected by a customer of a company.
    I think live in balance with the constraints can be seen as a key competence in the workplace and in social life, just remember the unemployment or run out web of for awhile. However skills can be acquired and it is not necessary to have bad experiences to get it.
    I agree constraints fuel creativity! May be that’s the reason why we say in Portugal:
    “We have more than a thousand ways to cook dried and salted codfish”. 🙂

    • Hi Jose,

      Absolutely! Just think about all the corporations who have huge budgets and yet it’s the insurgents, who have all kinds of constraints, who do ‘what matters’ (more) with less. This tells you they’re focusing on the right things which come from answering the right kind of questions.

      And completely agree with you that being able to do more with less is an under looked competency in people. I think now more than ever it’s becoming more clear that you don’t really need a lot of money to get started, just a dash of creativity and you’re off to the races!

      I see constraints working like a ‘death ground’ strategy. Like when Hernan Cortez landed in America, he ordered some of his men to burn the ships and basically signaled to his troops that there was no turning back and had to make the most if it. Win or die.

      Context is important, sometimes constraints will work and other times they’ll work in a negative way. Like you said, balance is key.

      In what other situations do you think constraints can be applied?

      I would love to know your thoughts.



      • Hello Jorge!

        I think that today creativity is vital not only in the production of goods or services but especially in processes, in leadership and in management.
        Recently we have seen through social media to the rescue of miners buried in Chile where it was possible to identify a number of constraints that nurtured creativity both of victims and rescue teams.
        I think this example could serve as a consideration for many companies who feel the constraints of the markets and resources whether are materials or humans. The leadership within the mine and the leadership of overseas teams are a great example of how constraints are emerging creativity.
        Without doing confirmation bias, if we look at the teams participating in Racing Sailboats, not only will we find a good dose of constraints as we find creativity.
        Admittedly, it must also be a good deal of knowledge and training, but the unknown and the unexpected are ever-present factors both in sailboats as in companies.
        In managing where, in my opinion, more than ever we need creativity meet constraints caused by the bankruptcy of many existing models so far is perhaps easy to see that whoever does not deal with constraints has scheduled date for abandonment. Adaptability and sustainability involve constraints that only creativity can solve.
        This are more two cents on my part!

        • Hi Jose,

          You are right and great example with the Chile rescue. No doubt some of the miners and the President of Chile deserve tremendous recognition for their efforts, they really came together and provided us a lesson on not only leadership but on making the most of what you have.

          Constraints are always present whether we acknowledge them or not. And, again being competent with dealing with constraints is fast becoming standard practice.

          Thanks again for your thoughts Jose, I very much appreciate it 🙂


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