Constraining creativity.

Why you should start thinking inside the box

If I was to ask you to think of five different children’s games that you could play with just the objects around you, how many would you come up with, and how hard would it be? Try it.

You might look around you and see a lot of different objects, so perhaps you’d think of “I Spy”. Or you might see a music device – stereo, iPhone or whatever – and think of something like musical statues. Eventually, as you scan all these objects around you, you might come up with five games or more.

But you’ve probably also got a pen and piece of paper nearby, and I’d suspect you can come up with at least five games just using those in a few seconds, like Pictionary, hangman, noughts and crosses, dots and boxes, finish the story, or just making paper aeroplanes or playing basketball using the bin.

Likewise, there are at least half a dozen kid’s games I can think of that use a stereo. If you really think about them, probably half of the objects around you could be repurposed or combined into multiple different games. And that’s the point: if you really think about them.

What this example demonstrates, is that simply by breaking the “problem space” into much smaller regions and focusing fully on each of them one at a time, we can come up with literally dozens of ideas relatively quickly – far more, far more quickly, than when we look at the space as a whole.

This is essentially an illustration of choice overload, the effect we experience when we are presented with lots of options, and as a result we find it much harder to choose between them. When we give ourselves too broad a canvas on which to create, we find it much harder to be creative.

“Transforming the customer experience”, or “developing brand new income streams” are two examples of these “broad canvas” challenges that my clients often wrestle with, or bring to me for help. Both are huge topics, each containing a vast amount of creative space, which is precisely why it can be so hard to come up with really innovative, creative solutions.

Hence, the best approach is to break that space down, into individual customer moments, individual problems, needs or occasions; to work in a focused and intensive way through each of them in turn, coming up with a spread of options and ideas for each; then pulling together that full catalogue to draw out the themes, the consistent patterns, and the combinations that together could be transformational across that bigger problem space.

At the heart of innovation, of business development, and of strategy itself, is creativity. And creativity works best when it is constrained. The bigger the space, the more important it is that you introduce constraints – different ones, provocative ones, entirely arbitrary ones – it doesn’t matter.

So, forget everything you’ve been told about creativity and “thinking outside of the box”. The best creative space is inside the box. And the smaller we make the boxes, the more we are stretched to think creatively inside each one, the more transformational ideas are likely to emerge from them.