loren Eric Swanson: Creativity and Constraint

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Creativity and Constraint

Have you ever tried to be creative? Have you ever taken out a sheet of white paper and said to yourself things like, "OK now think! Blank slate...Blue Sky...Blue Ocean (if you 've read the book) out of the box.....hmmmmm. Well, first I should have a good cup of Starbucks to help me think. Afterall, there has never been any Great Awakening without a good strong cup of coffee. Now where did I put my car keys?"

Dan and Chip Heath, authors of Made to Stick, recently published an interesting article entitled, "Get Back in the Box: How constraints can free your teams' thinking" in Fast Company (December 2007 / January 2008) p. 74. (http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/121/get-back-in-the-box.html). The thesis of the article is we actually become more creative when we create constraints in which to be creative. So, trying to create a bank's lobby that is "hipper and more inviting to young professional customers" far less effective than starting with some constraints--"We want the space to be more lie a Starbucks and less like a post office."

It is the same with comedy and improvisation. ""Improv actors are taught to be specific," Sawyer says. "Rather than say, 'Look out, it's a gun!' you should say, 'Look out, it's the new ZX-23 laser kill device!' Instead of asking, 'What's your problem?' say, 'Don't tell me you're still pissed off about that time I dropped your necklace in the toilet.'" The paradox is that while specificity narrows the number of paths that the improv could take, it makes it easier for the other actors to come up with the next riff."

The authors go on to write about Starbuck's founder, Howard Schultz: "Founder Howard Schultz famously fell in love with the concept of the "third place," a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg to describe meeting places other than home or the office. The third place, the focus of Oldenburg's book The Great Good Place, is an outside-the-box kind of term. It says, "think about something other than home or work." But it lacks specificity, which dulls its usefulness as a creative stimulus. Fortunately, the subtitle of Oldenburg's book fills the gap: "Caf├ęs, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day." Pick any one of those and combine them with our starting point--the redesign of the bank. Could you envision a bank that feels more like a coffee shop? More like a beauty parlor? A bar? Some of these are terrible business ideas, but the stimulus is effective. Your mind is off to the races."

Creativity can only come with constraints: How does Moses get more rest and more time off yet pray for Israel to multiply a thousand times (Deuteronomy 1)? How do you feed 5000 people with only 2 fish and five loaves of bread?

Understanding constraints in this fashion fits in to what Sam and I picked up at McKee's Story Seminar. Good stories are built on the question, "What would happen if.....?" What would happen if a shark ate a swimmer at the beginning of tourist season in a beach resort town?

Thinking in this manner allows us to think differently. "What would happen if everyone in our church began loving and serving someone (outside of current friends and family) who could do nothing for them in return.?" "What would happen if everyone in our church had an across the street, across the tracks or accross the seas missional esperience this year?" You can see where this is leading. We need to think of specific constraints to clearly think about possible real outcomes.


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