Stimulating Creativity by Constraining Your Brain


It sounds paradoxical – but sometimes imposing restraints can make people extremely resourceful. Just a contradiction in terms or a fundamental truth?

Scott Sonenshein writes the following in this recent article on “… constraints can help solving practical problems through new uses and applications of resources”. In situations when people can use less resources they may become extremely resourceful.

It’s relevant for us Market Researchers when we are leading a creative workshop or co-creation session, tasked with how best to unlock people’s creative capacities to come up with new, unexpected and innovative insights, concepts, or product ideas.

It’s not uncommon for Moderators to bring lots of stimuli to workshops, to broaden the view and trigger participant creativity. But there’s a downside which I think many of us have witnessed: having multiple existing solutions to choose from makes it very easy for the participants to take something that is already there and change it only marginally, instead of creatively developing something novel.

Back to ‘creativity through restriction’: there are countless examples of how restrictions can bring people to higher levels of creativity:

  • The limitation to a certain rhyme scheme brought about great poetry.
  • Going ‘unplugged’ by getting rid of electronic amplifications and just playing acoustic instruments revealed the true beautify of songs (and brought MTV big profits back in the ‘90s).
  • The strict rules of the filmmaking movement Dogma, excluding the use of elaborate special effects or technology, pushed filmmakers like Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg to explore unknown territories.

Yet it takes much more than a set of formal rules to create something artistically valuable – something with relevance and resonance. Sadly there are many examples of how poetry stays stuck in clichés or crippled wording. Playing songs unplugged only revealed how shallow some hit singles actually were. And after a few years of filmmaking Dogma proved to be too dogmatic to develop really inspirational films.

So: how can we in Market Research use the ‘power of constraint’ in our creative sessions to avoid just combining the known in a slightly different way? There are some simple ways of imposing constraints:

  • Timeboxed tasks often speed up creativity and avoid procrastination.
  • In ‘deprivation exercises’ you are forced to come to terms with constraints and find work-around solutions.
  • Asking participants to cover their eyes with sleeping masks can bring people to new insights.
  • And in Scrum development teams that have to respond to evolving challenges the limitations to available time and resources can lead to better focus and creativity.

How far can we go in actually reducing stimuli to foster creativity? It has to be done in a well-thought-through way, in exercises where it triggers free thinking and avoids an ‘easy way out’ – but doesn’t block people’s minds! Maybe it is about first opening up people’s views by giving visual and mental stimuli, and then taking these away to overcome the “cognitive roadblock”, as Sonenshein calls it, and bring their mind to a next level? And it’s likely to depend on the participants’ ability to think laterally, conceptually, creatively – not all people can do so.

We should never underestimate the power of our participants’ creative capacities: often they just need a little constraint to be unlocked and flourish!


For further reading: Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less — and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined by Scott Sonenshein. Copyright© 2017

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