Creativity with Constraints: Leadership’s Secret Sauce

I’ve never really considered myself to be creative – at least not in any conventional sense of the word, as applied to artistic endeavours. I can’t paint or compose or sculpt… I’m really great at following the instructions. I can play classical piano but run a mile from jazz. I did some acting as a teenager, but never warmed to improv. Interpretation rather than creation. So today, I thought we might explore the idea of creativity with constraints.

Creativity with Constraints
Attempt 5: Rule 1: two foreground colours, Rule 2: all shapes overlapping, Rule 3: five minute limit


'Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainty.' ~ Erich FrommClick To Tweet

This year, I have challenged myself to try. To get a bit uncomfortable and experiment. I have a reasonable iPad Pro – I know it has some pretty powerful graphics grunt. So I took a short online course about abstract art, using the Paper App.

Probably the most profound aspects of the course was a lesson on constraints and rules. Constraints being the unmovable boundaries within which you operate (the size of your screen, the app you are working in ) and rules being some additional limits you give yourself (only one foreground colour, all shapes must overlap, work for two minutes maximum).

Creativity with constraints
Attempt 7: Rules: two foreground colours

It has been interesting. I think I’m more creative than I believed… which really got me thinking…

Is leadership creative?

At the same time that I describe myself as “not very creative” I know in my bones that the practice of leadership is exceedingly creative, and I do think I’m capable of finding deeply creative solutions to organisational problems. So what’s the connection?

I think, too often, we think of artists – ‘true’ creatives – as working completely unfettered by the barriers, and roadblocks, and complaints, and frustrations we find in our organisational lives.

Never enough money, laws and regulations that describe how certain things must be done, owners’ and shareholders’ expectations, opening hours, “we’ve always done it like that”…

And it isn’t necessarily true that any of these constraints are bad. While we’d all like more money, I think we can agree that treating our employees fairly, and not polluting the environment, and serving our customers honestly and well, are good things…

Creativity with constraints
Attempt 17: Rule 1: Two foreground colours, Rule 2: Three minute time limit


So as a leader, then, our job is to understand the constraints… and then to exercise extreme creativity within them. It’s at the heart of problem-solving, of storytelling, of innovation, of evolution. It’s about getting in flow. It’s about fulfilment. And it’s about engagement.

But I hear you! “Not me” you say. “I’m not creative! I’m just here to do my job!” Well let’s give it a go. How can you exercise and strengthen your creative muscles?

Five ways to boost general creativity

Here are five activities that can boost your creativity – your baseline level, if you will. Do these things and you will also improve your creativity with constraints…

Learn a new skill, craft or language

In order to learn something new, your brain has to ‘unstick’ itself, and then reshape itself around the new knowledge. It’s quite hard work (which is why it can feel exhausting). New neural pathways are formed, old ones are pruned. And in that window of neuroplasticity, you actually become more creative. Cool huh!

Watch a film or read a book you’d normally avoid

The older we get, the more habitual we become. We go the same way to work, we go to the same grocery store, we go to the same gym, eat at the same restaurants… And our preferences for television, film and reading become pretty solid. I don’t read fiction – haven’t for years… until my son came along and I’ve read all manner of fiction since then! Mostly Dr Suess

Anyway, the point being that watching or reading something outside of your favourite and preferred genres is a great way to generate new thought patterns.

Learn to meditate… daily

Meditation can assist with lots of things: management of mood, gratitude, observational skills, and yes… creativity. In effect, meditation is like learning how to use your brain properly… did you ever notice there isn’t a user guide? Well meditation can assist you to understand the way your brain thinks, feels and processes information. All useful to becoming more creative.

Exercise the body… regularly

Rigorous exercise gets extra oxygen to the brain and releases endorphins, all of which is great for optimal brain function. Separately, I also find that mindless exercise (as opposed to mindful exercise) is another option for solving a specific problemI often seem to come up with my best ideas or solutions while on the treadmill…

Get enough sleep

There is increasing evidence that all adult human beings need between seven and eight hours sleep each night in order for their brains to function at their best. Too much, or not enough, and without you even realising it, memory can decline, processing speed can slow, and general fogginess can set in.

Creativity with Constraints
Attempt 21: Rule 1: Three foreground colours, Rule 2: 10 minute time limit

Six ways to boost creative problem solving

And when you already have a specific issue or challenge to tackle, you need some tactics to help you with a focused burst of creativity…

Go for a walk

Ideally in nature, even better, in bare feet. But if you can’t get to the forest or the beach, a meaningful break can work just as well. In The Eureka Effect, David Perkins explores the observed tendency humans have for apparently stumbling across our most important and groundbreaking ideas when we’re completely focused on something else entirely!

Reframe the problem

Sometimes we get stuck because we keep thinking about the problem from the same angle. Asking a different question or reframing the problem can radically increase our likelihood of finding a solution.

For example, if you are trying to improve a particular aspect of your client experience, such as how can you answer calls to your helpline on the second ring without increasing the number of agents in your call centre. Instead, try asking what you can do that would delight your customers.

For example, when I worked for an insurance company in New Zealand, our script for answering all calls was: “My name is Rebecca Elvy. Welcome to [name of company]. What can I help you with today?” It never ceased to amaze me how many people commented on this greeting. It gives space for the caller to get your full name (many times I’m sure help desk staff are giving me a fake name, let alone their full name!) and it left the full emphasis on how you were going to help them solve their problem.

Invite other perspectives

We know what we know and see often. But sometimes what we need to know is outside our experience. People with different worldviews can look at the same problem in a completely different way. So find some people who wouldn’t normally be involved in your problem. They might be elsewhere in your firm, or completely outside it. They might be competitors, or clients, or people from a different ethnic background. Diversity of thought is key here.

They may not come up with the answer, but they’ll certainly challenge your thinking and get your creative juices flowing!

Change your environment

I am a serial room-changer-rounder (that’s the technical term). At least a couple of times a year I’ll rearrange various rooms in my house, and my work space at the office. I don’t know if I’m looking for perfect Feng Shui (I don’t really know anything about Feng Shui!) or it just gives me a good clean out… but I find that the change of perspective helps me think clearer.

You might not need to be that radical though. You might find that relocating to a coffee shop or public library to work for a few hours might be enough!

Challenge your assumptions

You probably don’t know what they are… but you definitely have some.

Spend some time figuring out what they are: try asking “what has to be true for this to work out the way I think it will”.

Once you know what your assumptions are, try breaking them. If you assume that you don’t have enough money, try solving the problem in the way you would if money were no object. Clearly this is a thought exercise… at least to begin with, because it can’t magically make more money appear. But sometimes freeing your mind in this way enables you to come up with an elegant affordable solution that you otherwise were ‘hiding’ from yourself.

‘Unsolve’ the problem

Say wha…?

Yes, you read that correctly. Rather than focusing on how to fix the problem, try focusing instead on how to make it worse. What are all the things that you could do that would make this situation deteriorate… doing nothing might be the first one, but I bet you can come up with some really creative ways to make things worse! Get mischievous!

Once you have a bunch of ways to make things worse, test which ones can be ‘reversed’. Say if one way to make things worse is to always blame your customers for their problems (“it was working fine when we gave it to you…”) you might make things better by never blaming your customers, even when it is their fault.

Try it out! It’s fun!

Creativity with constraints
Attempt 23: Rule 1: Three foreground colours, Rule 2: All shapes must overlap another shape, Rule 3: Five minute time limit

And remember, great leaders are agents of change. If they wanted things to stay the same they would have appointed a manager…

If you are having trouble expressing your creativity as a leader, perhaps you need a virtual coach! Join up today, you can cancel at anytime.

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