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How constraints actually increase creativity and innovation

Many people think that constraints and creativity fall upon two totally opposite sides. And that while innovation leads to creativity; constraints make innovation difficult.

It sounds counterintuitive to say that constraints lead to innovation. We often hear from the leaders we work with that “it's hard to be innovative in our sector because we have a lot of restrictions".

What we find is that often these very same restrictions facilitate creativity. People find it easier to create ideas when they have criteria to meet, rather than complete ‘blue sky thinking’, where they can literally create anything. Constraints whilst often frustrating at face value, when framed in the right way, can give your people direction. We find that when people have a set of constraints or criteria to meet, they are much clearer on what is required of them and generate better ideas, as the constraints give them a specific area they can be highly creative in, rather than trying to generate ideas to solve a problem without direction.

And it’s not just us that believes this works, Harvard Business Review published an article that contained data from 145 different studies about the effects of constraints on creativity. And they have found that often projects are successful, not despite constraints, but because of constraints.

So what is it about having constraints that actually increases creativity and innovation?

As most people that consume our content probably know, we do a lot of work in aged care, and recently we have been working with a bunch of in-home service providers. At the start of the project, we heard from most of the organisations about how the Aged Care Standards were getting in their way and making it hard for them to do their job. But it became interesting when we started working with them more, that they found that the constraints of the standards were helpful because they facilitated an anchoring point that they were able to use to generate a heap of ideas that would create better outcomes, for not only their organisations but also the consumers they support.

The other constraint that you hear a lot in this sector is time. The leaders we work with quite often have many tasks that they need to complete every day. So, when you're talking about being innovative and creating better services, they're like, “we have constraints, we have to do things a certain way. Plus, we don't have a lot of time to dedicate to this project”. They were definitely of the mindset that they had many restrictions that would get in the way of their creativity.

Every sector has its constraints. Whether you’re in the disability space, healthcare, or any other sector, you have your own set of constraints you need to work within. And even outside of regulations and standards, you have organisational requirements and things your clients need from you. The reality is we all have constraints. It's about identifying them at the start of your project and using them as design principles to give your creativity some direction.

Design principles; the guide rails for your innovations.

Let's talk about design principles and what they are. When you are running an innovation project one of the key things you want to do early on is to understand the design principles that you’re going to run with. Design principles are kind of your guide rails to your creativity. A set of principles you are going to ensure that whatever solutions you create, are going to meet these guidelines.

Essentially, you use these principles as a way to keep people on track. So, when you have constraints, any of the things you know you must achieve as part of this project, you have them in the design principles. And as you're going through the innovation process, you keep referring to those design principles to make sure that you're staying on track the entire time. It is also important to update these principles as you progress through the project, especially as you learn more about the requirements and needs of your clients, plus any insights you have uncovered that will be critical to the success of your solution.

Having these principles means that when you are generating ideas you are more likely to get very specific ideas that will deliver what all stakeholders truly need, and when you are needing to choose ideas to progress with, your ideas will be well rounded and meet the complete needs of both your clients and your organisation.

A lot of innovation is about your mindset and how you approach things. And starting to get your team to look at your constraints as enablers can be a big way to start turning people's mindsets to “here's what we can do,” rather than “here's what we can't do.” The way forward may not be perfect, but there's always something that you can do that is better and will improve. Hopefully, we’ve given you a few ideas here on how you can use your constraints to guide your creativity for your next project.

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