Embrace Constraints; They May Lead You to Creative Excellence

In a previous article, I referred to NASA’s successful efforts to address the problems Apollo 13 faced. NASA personnel were essentially locked in a room, only equipped with the items available to the space ship’s crew. A highly constrained situation, in both resources available and time, yet ultimately successful. The first high profile example of the deep-dive.

We don’t all have an aeronautical emergency to address, however, that same problem-centric, constraint-aware approach can be a powerful means to enhance creativity and productivity. Understanding the problem to be addressed and what constraints exist, whilst ensuring these are indeed true constraints, can give teams a true sense of purpose. We refer to true constraints because teams may consciously, or sub-consciously, generate constraints that do not in reality exist. These constraints often take the form of “this company would not…..”. These perceived constraints may materialise through individuals joining the dots between previous business actions and decisions, and may, or may not, have substance. It is critical that these perceived constraints are surfaced, explored and tested with stakeholders lest they unduly hinder creative output and limit what an organisation can achieve.

Once true constraints are defined, one essentially defines the “solution space”; the sweet spot for an organisation’s creativity. By building a “pressure vessel” with the walls (pressure plates) based around individual goals, team objectives, company and customer requirements, which define the solution space, one can create a high-energy environment conducive to the generation of great solutions.

Time pressure can be introduced by scheduling executive progress reviews with stakeholders during the exercise, and outcome pressure introduced by promoting the exercise across the organisation and creating significant expectations of the final output. All ramping up pressure on the participants in an ultimately safe environment.

The creation of urgency and expectation can make the pressure vessel a very focused, productive and creative space whether astronauts lives do, or do not, depend on you.