Constraints and creativity

Posted on February 8, 2013


Disturbed young manI recently read a Harvard Business Review article called “Why Innovators Love Constraints.” (Thanks to our university’s chancellor, Cheryl B. Schrader [@SandTChancellor], for tweeting the link.) The author, Whitney Johnson, summarizes the virtues of working within defined parameters — primarily, that constraints can drive, rather than inhibit, creativity and innovation.

Her suggestion may seem counterintuitive to those of us who believe free reign is required for creativity. But Johnson is right. The more constraints applied to a situation, the more creative we must become to find a solution. As Johnson puts it:

A tightly-lidded box can stifle and suffocate. It can motivate us to figure out how get outside the box. To make choices about how we will expend the resources we do have available to us, to find cheaper, more nimble ways of doing something as a person – and as a corporation. Our perceived limitations may give us direction on where we might play, or want to play. Indeed, if we will let them, constraints can (and will) drive us to disruption.

Constraints can drive creativity. When we think about creative geniuses — Picasso, for example, or e.e. cummings or Quentin Tarantino — we think about their breakthroughs or breakaways from conventional methods. But they still had constraints. Picasso still had the canvas, cummings the blank paper, Tarantino the camera. But they worked within those constraints to create a new approach.

Twitter is a great example of a medium that constrains us. Within the span of 140 characters, we must compose a thought, a comment, a reaction, a response.

As a result, we have people like Tim Siedell (@badbanana), who routinely serves up gems like this:

And this acerbic bit, after Budweiser’s baby Clydesdale Super Bowl commercial that had everyone sniffling:

I’m not suggesting that Siedell is the Picasso of Twitter. But he’s pretty damn clever, and just about every tweet of his that I read gets me chortling. He’s figured out how to work within the constraints of the medium, just as Picasso did with visual art.

“When it comes to writing, or building a business, we may chafe against constraints, imposed or otherwise,” Johnson writes. “But without any constraints, we are creating ex nihilo, and can easily lose our way. Paradoxically then, a constraint can become a tool of creation.”

Haiku (the 5/7/5 syllable constraint). Limericks. Music (only seven notes to work with). All are constrained. Yet when creative minds accept and work within those constraints, they can create beauty, or at least (with limericks) a laugh or a smile.

Based on this principle, it seems that higher education, which faces many constraints (budgetary, regulatory, infrastructure, and so on), should be ripe for innovation. The challenge, as I see it, is that higher education (in general terms) has been allowed to function with relatively few constraints over the years. When you’ve been given a lot of latitude and freedom for a long time, you may tend to have less incentive to innovate.

But as we know, times are a-changin’ in higher ed. It’s time for creativity and innovation to happen. And it can happen, if we recognize and accept those constraints for what they are and figure out how to innovate within those parameters.

For some ideas on what’s already happening in the realm of technology in higher ed — and no, this is not another MOOCs post — take a look at this top 10 list of the most innovative approaches to technology, as judged by (Hat tip to Mark Greenfield [@markgr] for sharing this.) Take note of the creative ways in which these campuses are dealing with technology and learning issues.

Image courtesy © Rookcreations | Stock Free Images &Dreamstime Stock Photos.

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