The Power of Doing More With Less

Using constraints to enhance creative problem solving

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If given an assignment that is due in ten weeks, students usually wait until the eighth week to get started. In fact, I used to assign one long-term project in my classes, but finally threw that out in favor of assigning 3 two-week projects. The results have been astounding… The students have three times more work to do, but they do a much better job, demonstrate more creativity, and enjoy it much more. The pressure is there from the start, their energy never wanes, and there is no time to waste.

Constraints of all types play an important role in creative output. With severely limited resources, we need to make trade-offs and find creative ways of solving our problems. We have to sacrifice things we want to do in order to do the things we need to do. Constraints force us to be thoughtful, to prioritize, and to be as innovative as possible.

A memorable example comes from Monte Python’s movie Monte Python and the Holy Grail. In a scene in this low-budget movie you hear horses coming toward you through a thick fog. As they get closer, you realize that there are no horses — just a soldier banging two coconuts together to sound like the clopping of horses’ hooves. The budget for this film was so low that they couldn’t afford horses. As an alternative, the actors decided to bang two coconut shells together to create the sound. The scene, which would have worked with horses, is so much funnier with coconuts instead!

This is a poignant reminder that less is often more. Whenever you’re in a situation with severe constraints, you can think of coconuts for inspiration.

To demonstrate this concept in my creativity class, I ask students to design and produce an entire line of greeting cards in thirty minutes. As you can imagine, a company would normally take months to accomplish this task. I assign the students a specific holiday and set them loose with nothing more than paper, markers, and scissors.

At the end of the allotted time, they need to display prototypes of four cards that will be sold together and to give a sales pitch. The entire class votes on their favorite designs and the winning team gets a prize. This means that they all have extremely limited time, limited resources, and competition.

The results are always entertaining and inventive. For example, when the assigned holiday was Earth Day, one team created cards embedded with seeds that could be planted after the cards were read, and another team made cards that were to be passed on to others with added messages in order to save paper. The students are always delighted by what they accomplish in a remarkably short period of time and admit that the pressure was a surprising catalyst.

There are many real life situations in which imposing severe constraints leads to an outpouring of creativity. Twitter is a great example. With only 140 characters to get your message across, you need great restraint and ingenuity to put together a headline that grabs your audience’s attention. This initially seems terribly limiting — and it is. But over time, people have found remarkably innovative ways to use it. Like a haiku or a tiny blank canvas, it requires laser-focused attention to communicate anything meaningful.

But what if the constraints are even tighter? How about six words? Apparently Ernest Hemingway was once asked if he could write his memoir in only six words. He responded with the following sad tale: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” This challenge was embraced by SMITH magazine, which, in turn, has offered it to everyone via its website, out of which has become a bestselling book.

It is amazing how creative and illuminating six words can be. Here are a few examples from their website:

  • Stuck on repeat. Stuck on repeat.
  • I was engaged for one day.
  • I am disabled, but not helpless.
  • Found on CraigsList, table, apartment, fiancé.
  • Hobby became job. Seeking new hobby.
  • I’m not lazy. I’m pacing myself.
  • I’m the careless man’s careful daughter.

Every situation and environment has its own constraints, including some combination of time, money, space, people, and competition. These constraints sharpen your imagination and enhance innovation. Even when you have an abundance of resources, it’s valuable to consider how you would tackle the same challenges without them. Constraints can be modulated up and down to catalyze and compound creative energy.

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This is an edited excerpt from inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity