Constraints are a source of opportunity for innovation

When it comes to creativity and innovation, our clients or managers often ask us to Think outside the box and to consider everything. This way of thinking supposedly generates superior ideas. Thinking outside the box is still a very popular concept and it makes us feel like the sky is the limit.

However, studies show that Thinking outside the box does not generate more and better ideas. Moreover, when people are given a blank page they often feel blocked and sometimes even feel fear. People experience the paralysis of choice. Where to start? What to do? What not to do?

Psychological research tells us that constraining our thought processes actually stimulates creativity. It may sound counter-intuitive that we become more creative when our thinking is constrained. But it’s true. When we create our own box of constraints, thinking inside that box helps us become more creative.

A lack of resources is perhaps one of the most common forms of constraints. What typically happens if we have only a few resources to work with? We have less choice and need to think of new ways to use what we have. Extremely constrained situations in which people can find themselves, such as great poverty, imprisonment or war, show just how creative people can become.

Many industries have a high degree of regulation. The constraint formed by regulation limits a company’s actions but at the same time it often offers room for opportunity. Often when regulation changes or additional regulation is imposed, new commercial initiatives are introduced and new companies enter the marketplace.


Voluntary constraints also trigger creativity. In 1960, his publisher Random House bet Theodor Geisel that he couldn’t write a children’s book using only fifty unique words. Talking about constraints: just fifty words! Under his pseudonym Dr Seuss, Geisel published Green Eggs and Ham, using exactly fifty different words. Kids love this book and it became the fourth best-selling children’s book ever.

Another more recent example is Twitter, a very successful $ 24 billion dollar company whose traditional product is very constrained. Twitter forces its users to use 140 characters or less for their tweets. By constraining the number of characters, people are forced to express themselves more creatively.

We need to foster constraints to generate highly creative ideas and to become successful in innovation. Constraints come in different forms and shapes: strategic […]