The constraints that drive creativity, via HBR

A common misconception of Improvisers is that we have no rules on stage. If it’s all made up, then “anything goes”. Right? Wrong.

What helps us collaborate and communicate in times of uncertainty, constant change (and sometimes fear) are small, deliberately placed pieces of structure… i.e. guidelines that we practice, practice, and practice some more.

These constraints enhance creativity and cohesiveness, instead of take it away.

These constraints serve as a common language and a framework. We don’t know much about the content of our final creative product, but we have a process.

Turns out, Improvisers are onto something. This, from Harvard Business Review:

“…although many activities traditionally considered creative, from the arts to design to athletics, all seem to be free-form in nature, in reality they are anything but. Each has its own set of limits that governs the performance.

Take comedy improvisation. It is the audience that sets the initial limits by throwing out suggestions (often surprising and contradictory ones) to the performers. The actors then perform with no further planning, and the skit emerges with help from a new, simple rule: accept without question what is given to you by your fellow performers. Every line you produce must build on one that came before, and you can never second-guess that line.

This is a daunting constraint, because you cannot plan, prepare or in any way rehearse. Your only choice is to remain focused and attuned to everything that is happening on stage, ready to react. But this limit makes for nearly infinite possibility and actually frees the performer to be even more imaginative.

An intelligent constraint informs creative action by outlining the “sandbox” within which people can play and guides that action not just by pointing out what to pursue but perhaps more importantly what to ignore.”

All this “hoopla” about thinking outside the box is okay, but maybe we should be focusing on staying inside the box, and modifying its shape, its feel and its size.

As we dial up or dial down the constraints, the question for companies and its leaders seems to be:

a) Are we ourselves comfortable playing and working with that freedom (i.e. ambiguity)?

b) Are the people in charge comfortable with granting that amount of freedom (i.e. is there trust in the relationship)?

Something to ponder…


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