in Improvement & Development, Leadership, Leading People, Leading Projects, Leading the Self, Random Thoughts

Creativity, Effectiveness and Constraints


In my experience, constraints can boost creativity. I get more creative when I operate out of constraints. E.g. “Get X done in Y months else penalty of Z% per week” or “Get this huge proposal out by/before 5:00 PM tomorrow to remain eligible“. Constraints pushes us to be creative, to find easier or more effective ways of doing things and getting more done with limited resources available.

Recently I was in meeting with the Product Director and Product Manager of an organization. At the end of a technical discussion, the Director asked me to describe our services in 30 seconds. Before I started speaking he said, “Your time starts now!”.

Knowing that I only had 30 seconds to speak (constraint), I was able to elevate my thinking to a level where I described the very core of the organization. I was surprised to know how my thinking changed in light of constraints. I was able to do a different level of abstraction. Probably if I had 30 minutes to describe the same, I would have spoken a lot, but with little substance and much less effectiveness.

As a leader, it helps to create reasonble constraints for team members – to fire their creativity and effectiveness. Our brain has tendency to tag items that have constraints and pay special attention to them. In absence of such reasonble constraints, we tend to procrastinate and get into an easy mindset where little gets accomplished.

This is also a reason why I love Twitter. Whatever you want to express, you only have 140 characters. This constraint helps me to do concentrated thinking, extract the core and put the best possible representation of thought in less than 140 characters.

Probably this is also why people get more creative during recession. Recession or difficult career situation throws a set of constraints and organizations/individuals have to get things done within these constraints.

Another idea is to have a set of self-imposed constraints. I know a sales manager who imposed a constraint that he would respond to the incoming leads within 45 minutes. If he is not able to respond back in 45 minutes, he would consider it as a personal failure. This rule helped him become extremely responsive to prospects.

Do you think constraints are good? Does it help you get more creative? Do you have self-imposed constraints (rules)  for managing your work/time? I would love to hear your side of the story.

P.S: Just found a fantastic Business Week article on creativity and constraints. It adds another perspective – “While we need them (constraints) to spur passion and insight, we also need a sense of hopefulness to keep us engaged and unwavering in our search for the right idea. Innovation is born from the interaction between constraint and vision.”

  1. A wonderful post again Tanmay. I 100% agree with you, constraint always makes one perform better. As a leader it is also important to see that the constraint set for someone makes him better, Leader needs to provide just enough (not all) facilities to achieve those tasks. When I say not all, I am looking forward for some creativity from the team here. Recently, one of my team mate got frustrated out of certain tight time bound activities and I had seen reduction in productivity. This does not mean that Constraints are not good, Leader needs to ensure that the perspective is clear to the team and the purpose of this activity has to make them more effective and productive at the end of the day. For personal achievements it is very helpful to set internal deadlines to various tasks, I have observed that one can generate at least 15% or more productive and effective output.



    • Thanks for commenting Shripal – constraints (external, implied or self-imposed) go a long way to ensure that we/team are on our toes to get thing done. This limit itself sparks creativity to achieve desired results within constraints. Has always worked for me!

      Have a great day!

  2. Hi Tanmay!

    Very well written and pretty inspiring ideas – once again on your blog!

    I personally feel that constraints would surely lead to effectiveness in one’s work. However, as far as the creativity part is concerned, one needs the right time, ambience and thought process to come to an appealing work. What do you say?


    • Hi Nitin, Thanks for commenting.

      You are right when you mention that one needs right environment and thought process to get creative.

      One of the important things is that people use constraints as an excuse. Intent/Drive to get something done plays a vital role in determining whether a person would get creative in working through constraints or put them as an excuse. One needs drive and perseverance to work with constraints and still remain effective.

      Thanks for commenting and have a great evening!

  3. Awesome! I am going to order some those pretty choclate bars :).
    Thank you both of you for helping me change my life. I am so much healthy now.
    Thank you,

  4. I agree with what you are saying – and I would like to build on it.

    I still use Deming’s 14 points for management in the way I run my departments. One of his points that I’ve come to question over time, is Deming advocated not using quotas and numeric goals. In many ways, a deadline is a numeric goal – get X done by Y date. Deming argued that by setting constraints, you set expectations and limit the drive and potential to achieve much better results than what has been achieved in the past. For example, if you say to you PR person, “you need to do 3 press releases each week” – then you will probably get exactly 3 press releases a week. Deming would argue that it might be possible to do 10 press releases a week if you created the right environment where people wanted to continually improve, instead of just meeting the constraint.

    This is where reality meets theory. In reality, there are some people that I manage were deadlines (constraints) are critical. If I didn’t give them a deadline to get X task done by Y date, it would probably take 5Y to get it done. There are others that I manage where I say, “you know, it usually takes Y days to get X done. See if you can come up with some ideas to get X done half the time that we have done it in the past.” These people can often invent major breakthroughs in productivity – which is really exciting. So… I think it is a mixed bag. Constraints are very important in creating an environment where people get things done on time, but constraints can also prevent some people from making major improvements.

    I do agree a short deadline forces people to be creative about getting things done – but again, I think there is more to it than that. I have a background in creative thinking methods and one (of many) creative thinking methods is “challenge the constraints”. If you ask me to deliver X by Y date – I might creatively suggest that I deliver A by 2Y date – where A is much better than what you originally asked for. So… while constraints are important for creativlity, it’s also important to have an environment where people know they can challenge the constraints and offer alternatives.

    Thanks for you post on this. I think it brings ups some very real, interesting issues that are often ignored. All of this is pretty complicated stuff – but offers the opportunity for dramatic productivity improvements for those that are willing to make an effort to try to understand it.

Comments are closed.


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