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Innovation Culture Bulletin: Restrictions that breed creativity

Work & Lifestyle

Are we too quick to reject restrictions as bad, when they could in fact hold the key to more creative thinking?

“Through yellow walls that shine like silver.” — Jackson C. Frank

We tend to think of rules, frameworks and parameters as restrictors, hemming in our decision making and limiting our creativity. “You can’t do that” aren’t four words usually associated with the creative process, and creatives are often revered as rule-breakers, pioneers, mavericks. But are we too quick to reject restrictions as bad, when they could in fact hold the key to more creative thinking?

Built on a floating ice shelf in the Weddell Sea, just south east of Antarctica, the Halley VI Research Centre is the world’s first fully re-locatable research center. Made up of eight bright blue and red hexagonal blocks, it stands magnificently against Antarctica’s crisp, snowy backdrop. Its design takes root in 1960s sci-fi, and the AT-AT walkers from The Empire Strikes Back actually inspired the shape of the modules.

But the easy modularity of the station would not have been realized if it were not for the constraints posed by its natural surroundings. Being so close to the South Pole meant only 12 weeks of the year were appropriate for construction work, which resulted in parts of the station being prefabricated in South Africa, then shipped over and built slowly over a few summers. What’s more, no single piece could weigh more than nine tons, or it may fall through the ice during transportation.

In 1975, Jazz pianist Keith Jarrett was presented a piano that was too small for the arena he was about to play — the Opera House in Cologne. To avoid the tinny high notes, he bashed down on the mid to lower keys, producing a moving, theatrical performance in a rich, original sound. The Köln Concert went on to be not only arguably his best record, but one of the best-selling jazz records of all time.

Restrictions — self-imposed or set by our surroundings — can in fact be liberating. It is how engineering works: adhering to strict measurements and infrastructure guidelines. If there are too many variables, the number of choices becomes infinite, overwhelming the creator and clouding their ability to make the right decision. Plus, too much choice leaves little room for innovation: restrictions, such as rhyme schemes in poetry, can lead the mind to words and solutions it would never have arrived at otherwise.

In this month’s Innovation Culture Five, we look at ways to impose constraints for yourself, so you can liberate your creativity and problem solving:

1. Limit your word count. Experiment with writing a proposal in as few words as possible — give yourself a limit of one paragraph. One of the reasons why poetry is so effective is due to its streamlined nature; it is shaved of any excess, superfluous words. This enables the copy to be more to the point. For the more adventurous, you can even go as far as setting a 12-word limit. This way, you can work out your absolutely crucial points, then go back and fill in the surrounding sentences to make the proposal flow.

2. Set a small budget. Filmmaker Martin Villeneuve produced his futuristic sci-fi film Mars et Avril for CAD 2 million. Instead of imposing constraints on time or workload, his limitation was on the budget. The movie took seven years to make, and this restriction gave him opportunities to explore alternative options he would not have otherwise, such as turning a hard-to-schedule actor into a holographic character.

3. Develop your life outside of work. Though committing to extra curricular activities may seem as counter-intuitive to productivity, the limitations they pose on your working schedule can actually have positive effects. Knowing that you have to attend a soccer game at lunchtime will push you to finish your tasks in a given time frame. Sitting down with one task for 45 minutes, instead of three hours, will no doubt encourage you to work in a more concentrated manner.

4. Work in sections. Try to tackle one section, of one part, of one problem at a time. Limiting yourself to think inside a small field can help magnify the light on a particular issue. Instead of being overwhelmed by the entirety of the project, your specific challenge will become clear. Similarly, when deciding on a plan of attack, narrow down on the choices you are presented with to five, then narrow it further. In doing so, the best ideas will float to the top, illuminating the essence of what you’re trying to achieve.

5. Work in another language. If you — like more than half of the world’s population — are bilingual, try working in the language that isn’t your mother tongue. Novelist Haruki Murakami wrote his first story in English, then translated it back to Japanese. Through working within the basic, limited vocabulary in his second language, he came up with a simple, effective tone of storytelling that was not burdened by unnecessarily ornate imagery.

You can find this month’s office-friendly Spotify playlist here.