Moderate constraints actually boost creativity. Here's why

The popular belief is creative minds work best in unstructured, open-ended environments. But some research suggests that the opposite might be true

Charles Assisi

[By reneeellisdesigns under Creative Commons]

For sale: baby shoes, never worn

What is it that remains unsaid in the story above? What thoughts and images are in your mind right now?

Take your time. Give each of these six words a thought. For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

I confess to feeling a lump in my throat after having read it and letting the import sink in.

I then read it aloud to my wife. A pragmatic creature when the situation demands, but susceptible to emotion as well. Without so much as a thought, two probabilities occurred to her.

1. There’s a mother who accidentally purchased a pair of outsized shoes for her baby. It ought to be disposed. So, she’s placed an ad.

2. Perhaps there is a poor, single mother someplace who has no way to eke a living out and she’s just lost her baby. She has no choice but to sell whatever she has, including her dead baby’s shoes.

“Hmm! Anything else?” I asked her.

“Nothing,” she said.

The first option hadn’t crossed my mind.

Legend has it that once upon a time, the Nobel Prize-winning writer Ernest Hemingway was at lunch with friends at a restaurant. Out of the blue, he bet $10 he could craft an entire story in six words. Nobody believed him. A pot was assembled and the money was put into it. And Hemingway thought up this story, creating a new genre—flash fiction. His friends were stunned and he took the money home.

But that isn’t where my interest lies. It lies in the constraint Hemingway imposed and what emerged out of it. In this case, “create a story in six words”. To my mind, it is immaterial whether or not Hemingway actually did create the story. That a powerful story can be told in just six words is what matters.

Why does it matter? The answers to the question begin in the more contemporary Theory of Constraints as articulated in the 1980s by Eliyahu Goldratt in his seminal book The Goal. To get the import of what it means, and before you read any further, may I suggest you take a few minutes to watch the video below? I assure you, the six minutes spent watching it will be time well invested.

Now, both this theory and the video were created to drive home the point that when placed under constraint, innovation follows. The theory percolated into popular management lexicon beginning in the late 1980s. Carlos Ghosn, now the chairman and chief executive of the Renault-Nissan Alliance, took the theory one step further and coined the term frugal engineering: “… achieving more with fewer resources”.

In the West, this framework was honed into what is now called disruptive innovation, a term coined by legendary management thinker Clayton Christensen, for whom I have the deepest of respect. I often seek out for solace his lecture “How Will You Measure Your Life?” and a book by the same name that followed.

At home in India, though, “frugal engineering” and “disruptive innovation” are embedded in our psyche. We have always called it jugaad. I don’t think an appropriate translation of the word exists. Contemporary literature describes it as “Gandhian engineering”. It insists on “doing more, for less, for more”. To accomplish this though, you ought to combine innovation with passion and compassion.

To witness jugaad in action, just look around. From the way our folks used informal banking networks that explain how chit funds operate across India or how local kirana stores manage minus sans fancy software. Frauds are exceptions. These systems are built on trust and informal networks. It was and continues to be what us urban folks now condescendingly call a part of jugaad.

Be that as it may, jugaad is embedded in our psyche—by our very nature, we are built to make do with less. Simply put, minimalism—a theme I had dwelled upon in the past. Much water has passed under the bridge since then.

I refuse to wear fancy clothes, for which the heaviest price I have to pay is my 11-year-old daughter’s insistence I walk two steps behind her. She can’t be seen with scruffy-looking me when all her friends have spiffy-looking fathers. A thought that has often crossed my mind is to impose artificial constraints on her just so that she may learn the value of money. What if I told her I cannot afford what she wants?

But Charlie Munger, vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and Warren Buffett’s long-time partner, close friend and perhaps one of the finest minds of our times, has a few thoughts on that. “They (your children) will hate you. Hate you. Can you believe that?” Instead, he argues: “Being surrounded by the right values from the beginning is an immense treasure. Warren had that. It even has a financial advantage.”

Who’s to argue with Munger? I guess, over time, my daughter will come around if I get a few things right.

That said, reasons exist for my minimalism. I see value in constraints and have tried my damndest best to inject “artificial constraints” into my life. Before I get into that, I ought to file a caveat. I would be lying if I said I don’t like the good life as well. There are instances when I have looked the other way when minimalist options exist.

My car, for instance, is a beast that was purchased against common sense and advice from informed friends. In any which case, any investment adviser will tell you that unless you have excess cash on hand, an expensive car is a bad thing to have because its value depreciates every year.

Worse still, mine is a fuel guzzler to boot with an aftersales network that exists only on paper. But it is a beauty to look at and sit in, and drives like a dream.

That out of the way, why should I impose constraints upon myself? For instance,

• Why insist to myself I ought to sleep no later than 4.30am? That quietness allows me to brace for what lies ahead and get down to uninterrupted work.

• Why insist that I “work”, as we understand the term, for no more than six hours on the outside on a bad day? All of my other hours are spent on activities I articulated earlier.

• Why push myself to study subjects I have no background in?

• Why do I try to look for patterns in the data and copious notes I maintain?

• Why push myself outside my comfort zone when where I am will take me through this life?

• If my job is to expend all of my time and energies on thinking up new ideas, why impose all of these boundaries on myself? Popular wisdom has it that constraints hinder creative and free thinking.

I beg to differ. In researching this theme, I found more evidence to support my hypothesis from a doctoral thesis presented by Brent David Rosso at the University of Michigan.

He starts out by putting in place the current understanding of creative organisations, people and their output. The popular belief is creative minds work best in unstructured, open-ended environments, free from external limitations that provide creators ample time and space to explore and play with ideas. In other words, creativity is maximised by freedom and uninhibited by external constraints.

But Rosso argues to the contrary. Moderate constraints actually boost creativity. His research shows “… creative teams have even been shown to actively place constraints on themselves as a way of enhancing their creativity. These recent findings alluding to the potential benefits of constraints for creativity are not surprising in light of the experiences of product and technology development teams and other creative professionals. Creative professionals have noted the value and importance of constraint for enhancing the creativity of individuals and teams.

“For example, psychologist Patricia Stokes describes constraints as ‘barriers that lead to breakthroughs’ in a variety of creative professions, from product design and architecture to visual art and music.

“Marissa Mayer, vice-president for Search Products and User Experience at Google, has also challenged the assumption that unbridled freedom is best for creativity in product and technology development, arguing that with the right people and conditions in place, ‘creativity thrives best when constrained’. And at 3M Company, an organisation long recognised for superior innovation, leaders are paying attention to the importance of managing the tension between constraint and creativity in a way that promotes breakthrough invention amidst challenging external environments. Indeed, not only can constraint be helpful in creative product development, but it is considered to be an inherent part of the product and technology development process. This evidence suggests that, depending on how it is managed and the environment in which it occurs, constraint can help enhance creativity in teams.

“Of the limited amount of empirical research examining the impact of constraint on creativity, most has focused on time constraints. The presence of time deadlines or production goals has typically been described as a negative influence on creativity because it discourages exploration and increases reliance on status quo ways of thinking and doing. Researchers have argued that good creativity takes time and that creators need ample time and space to think creatively, suspend judgment, and play with ideas.

“… However, there is also mounting evidence to the contrary, suggesting that time constraints can have a positive impact on creativity, at least in certain proportions. For example, Andrews and Farris (1972) found positive, significant relations between scientists’ experienced time pressure and their creativity… After a certain point, however, the time pressure becomes too great and has debilitating effects on creativity.

“… It has also been suggested that the availability or abundance of material resources might negatively impact creativity. For example, while resources are needed to perform one’s job, not having everything that is needed readily at hand may stretch employees to think of different ways of doing their work. In other words, a lack of resources may actually help foster creativity. Taking this a step further, Csikszentmihalyi (1997) suggests that resources can make people too comfortable, having a ‘deadening’ effect on creativity.”

If more evidence is needed, here’s a pop quiz.

1. Which is the most productive nation in the world?

If you thought China or South Korea, you got it wrong. It’s Switzerland.

2. How many federally mandated days of paid vacation time do the Swiss get?

Twenty-eight paid days. The most in the world. This does not include their mandated holidays and festivals they celebrate.

3. Where does India stand right now as far as productivity go?

A. It’s ranked 55, after five years of continual decline.

4. How many days of paid leave does an average Indian get?

A. Twelve. Fifth from the bottom.

Source, you ask? The Global Competitiveness Report compiled by the World Economic Forum.

On that note, my clock indicates I started work on this piece at 5.30am. I’m 15 minutes past my six-hour work limit for the day. So you will have to pardon me because I have other pressing matters to attend to, like a quick nap before I attend to the mundane issues that do not need my brain on overdrive. And I need to review this once more before I send it out to my editors as well.

[This is a mildly modified version of an article first published in Mint on Sunday under the slug Life Hacks, a column that appears every Sunday. This has been reproduced with permission.] 

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About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is currently co-founder and director at Founding Fuel. He writes a weekly column as well under the slug Life Hacks in Mint, India's most influential business newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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