Every year – pandemics permitting – on a small farm in far West Wales 100 guests gather for four days and three nights of talks, inspiration and connection with like-minded change-makers at an event called the Do Lectures.
The barn where the talks are hosted can only hold 100 people, and that is all it will ever hold. Whilst most events succeed by growing over time, that simply isn’t an option for Do. The event can’t get any bigger, so they aim to make it better every year. More impactful speakers. More amazing food. A more immersive and transformational experience. The result? An event that is 20x oversubscribed.
The fee paid by attendees covers the cost for the talks to be recorded and shown online for free, broadening their reach. The massive over-demand has also led to online courses and smaller spin-off events and workshops.
There is a Do book publishing business that commissions and sells books written by past speakers. The outcome is a more varied, resilient and impactful ecosystem that reaches many more people than if they had simply moved to another venue and made the main event bigger.
The constraint of size prompted creative ways to scale the reach and message of Do without expanding the event itself.
Constraints are everywhere
The story of the Do Lectures is not an isolated example. Everywhere you look you can find stories of success and creativity despite – or because of – the constraints people and organizations face.
It’s a myth that we need complete flexibility and control and budget and time to be creative. These things can hinder us, paralyzed by the infinite opportunities and choices we face.
Constraints create tension, and tension forces focus, choice, prioritization, compromise…and creativity.
When Sara Blakely launched Spanx she couldn’t afford to use the standard marketing approach for a new business-to-consumer product of newspaper, billboard, TV or radio advertising.
Instead, she used word of mouth to build a passionate and effective network of advocates for her product. This approach proved so successful that even when they could afford to advertise, they chose not to.
Consider how the Swedish artist Anders Zorn used just four colors to create his many great works, the self-imposed constraint inspired new ways to portray colors he could not directly apply.
Constraints imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic forced organizations to rapidly transition to remote working, finding new ways to look after their customers and colleagues.
Top chess players show a constant stream of creativity as they continue to explore a game some 1,500 years old that uses just six different types of pieces within a board containing only 64 squares.
What’s the commonality across these examples?
The people involved have learned to see constraints as a lever for creativity, looking at the challenges they face in different ways to find new solutions.
Rather than fighting against the constraint, they use them as prompts and inspiration. They ask “how can we” rather than complain that “we can’t because”.
Every individual and organization faces constraints, whether time, money, capacity, capability, access to resources, technology, networks, key relationships…they each force us to think differently to keep making progress, to make difficult choices about what matters most, and to look beyond the obvious and easy to find something new.
This is the key point – creativity is found at the edges, away from the obvious and the mainstream. Constraints push you to these edges and force you to look afresh at your challenges.
Using constraints as catalysts
So, how can we use constraints as catalysts for creativity, rather than blocks to progress?
There are a few practical things we can do.
First, accept the fact that constraints are a natural feature of every organization, and that they can be an asset.
Acknowledge the choices we have to make in managing them, but seek to make the choice a positive – turn a potential weakness into a strength by embracing them as a feature rather than a bug.
Second, make sure you are trying to solve the right problem. Often we fixate on the immediate symptom rather than ensuring we understand the root cause.
For example, lack of marketing budget or resources is an oft-quoted challenge for start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises as they seek growth. It is worth making sure that this is a real constraint.
Are you making the best use of free platforms and channels? What else could you do to make existing customers advocates and champions of your company to maximize word of mouth?
What can you do to encourage customer referrals? Are you maximizing the value provided to and generated from existing customers?
Are you losing existing customers you could retain? Are there partnerships you could build that would enhance your profile and create new routes to growth?
The next thing we can do is to change our mindset around constraints by asking a different question when we encounter them.
Rather than our usual response of “we can’t because”, use the positive approach of “we can if” to find ways forward.
This can help you see around the problem and move your thinking into problem-solving mode rather than fixating on the obstacle. If you keep hitting new constraints, keep asking the question until you get to an action you can take.
Lastly, you need to practice. Constraints are not always forced upon us, but can be self-imposed as a catalyst for creativity and change.
For example, this could be designing a product or service to a cost point, or, like in design sprints, using time constraints to force prioritization and a focus on the most important tasks or features.
Without being aware of it directly, in artefacts such as strategic plans, tender documents and service design principles we will already be balancing constraints.
What-if scenarios are also powerful ways to practice the art of turning constraints into opportunities, as they create safe spaces to explore the edges of what you can do.
Any company that had explored a scenario of “how could we run our business without an office” would have found the pandemic much easier to navigate!
To foster creativity, we must learn to see constraints as opportunities rather than limitations.
By adopting a “we can if” mentality we can move past our initial negative response to use constraints as powerful catalysts for creativity.
Don’t hide from the constraints you face, or use them as an excuse for inaction. Instead, embrace them, make them a strength, and use them as levers to stand out from the crowd by doing something new.
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