Dr. Amantha Imber

3 ways to increase creativity through constraints

By November 6, 2014 No Comments
When you google ‘How to act like a tortured artist’ Wikihow gives you seven easy steps towards reaching your goal. You start with working on your look; the sloppy “I-Just-Rolled-Outta-Bed” look, the “Romantic” or “Could Be Sane but Not-All-There” look and after that you mainly focus on being misunderstood and acting gloomily. Under no circumstance you should be caught smiling to any sort of camera. Imagine.
When we think about ultimate creativity we imagine a Tortured Artist who will not be held back by any form of constraint. Only ultimate freedom will lead to ultimate creativity right? What could possibly be more inspiring than a blank canvas, an unstructured and open-ended approach, and work free of limitations? Shouldn’t creativity always be free of constraints? 
Researchers from the University of Amsterdam looked into the relationship between creativity and constraints and found a fascinating result. They gave their participants a computer game maze to solve. Half of the participants solved a maze without any obstacles, the other half solved a maze that had an obstacle blocking one of the routes. This blockage significantly limited their options and made it harder to escape. After solving the maze all the participants were given a standard creative ability test. They were asked to look at three words on their computer screen and find the forth word that connected them all. The participants who solved the unblocked maze solved an average of 2.83 puzzles. The participants who dealt with the obstacle in their maze solved an average of 4.75 puzzles, performing significantly better.
Constraints can increase creativity significantly. The constraint that the blockage in the computer maze presented forced participants into a more creative mindset. A blockage or a constraint forces you to stop using routine, to stop automatic thought and opens your mind up for creativity. Or, as  Marissa Mayer (the current president and CEO of Yahoo!) puts it, “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.” Having no limitations can be paralysing, especially when it comes to creativity. 
Here are some tips on how to use constraints to increase creative performance in your team:
Change it up. If you want to think outside the box you need a box to think outside of. Once you know what your constraints are you can start using them to your advantage. Deliberately challenge your constraints (What if you only had 1 day to solve your problem? What if your budget was half the size?) and think more creatively as a result. 
Create your own constraints. Research shows that highly creative teams actively invite new constraints into their creative process.     
Don’t overdo it. Too many constraints can be as paralysing as having no limitations at all. Make sure to stay flexible and try different constraints throughout your process.