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How times of constraint can be used to focus organisational growth strategy

Constraint

We live in interesting times

In a nutshell

  1. Constraint and creativity go hand in hand.
  2. Abundance and scarcity can have profound impacts on our behaviour. 
  3. With no constraints, there are no incentives to change our behaviour and think more innovatively in order to do things differently.
  4. Organisations should embrace Covid-related constraints as an opportunity to provide fresh perspectives on their future strategies. 

Whether you view it as a blessing or a curse, there is no doubting that our lives have all be turned around by the Covid-19 pandemic. Previous freedoms have been replaced with constraints, and we all find that the unthinking behaviours that guided much of our work and private life for so long, have needed to be cast aside and rethought, as useless as a central city carpark or resort wardrobe. 

Indeed, so visceral and real are these constraints that many of us literally cannot leave our home for anything other than essential requirements. As I write, Auckland is into week 5 of a complete Level 4 lockdown, while across the Tasman, Melbourne has passed 230 days of restricted movement and Sydney 114 days. Really nothing like this has been experienced in the past 100 years outside the imposition of global conflicts. 

Constraints are shitty. And these are big ones – in many ways probably the biggest that most of us will ever experience. And while that’s not necessarily a lot of fun to live through, what is worth exploring in this experiment we find ourselves in right now, is what impact these big constraints are having on our creativity and innovation.  

Constraint and creativity have long been observed as close, albeit slightly odd, bedfellows. And whether we are looking at art, business or warfare, or indeed any human endeavor, constraint has always been an accelerant for creative thinking. To the point in which it is often sought out purposefully to provide focus and a new perspective. 

Take the art world. Many great artists throughout time have imposed constraints on their practice to stimulate their creativity – Picasso had his pink and blue periods, Monet forced himself to repeatedly paint the way light broke on his subjects, rather than the subjects. Even Dr. Seuss used the constraint of word count to drive his output, limiting The Cat in the Hat to 250 words, and Green Eggs and Ham to an even more extreme fifty words. Of course, the high-water mark for word constraint lies with Hemmingway, who famously took a $10 bet that he could write a moving novel in six words. “For sale, baby shoes, never worn” was the result, scrawled on a napkin over lunch. 

It’s a similar story in other vastly different areas of human endeavor too. Hernan Cortes, landing in Mexico in 1519 with just 600 men to conquer the Aztec empire, ordered his fleet of boats burned on the beach, to make sure his men were properly focused on necessity of victory – the constraint imposed was “no way back, no retreat possible”. And it’s a similar (but less ethically nasty) story in business too. Google is often celebrated for its innovative culture because of the vast freedoms they give people in “20% time” – the day a week you can work on any innovation project they want. But they also imply rigorous constraints to guide the behaviour of employees in their projects, embracing a philosophy called “Creativity Loves Constraints”, which includes strict deadlines for developing prototypes and ambitious performance criteria on outputs. 

So, what is it about constraint that makes it such an ally to creativity and innovation?

Why do we intuitively seek it out to stimulate new ways of thinking? Why impose restrictions that make life harder? 

Ultimately, psychologists have concluded, it seems comes back to the idea of abundance vs. scarcity and the impact this has on our behaviour. Someone who has studied this space significantly is Scott Sonenshein, bestselling author and professor of management at Rice University. He notes that when we have all the resources in the world, all the time we could wish for and no boundaries around us, the incentive to change behaviour and do things differently can become very limited. We are compelled to act more on rote when faced with decisions – pulling useful memories up where success has occurred in the past, rather than rethinking a problem from scratch. 

Some truly amazing displays of innovation have emerged during Covid, but most organisations have not embraced the constraints of Covid as an opportunity to refresh their future strategy.

When our resources or behaviours are constrained, we impel upon ourselves a freedom to view things in less conventional ways, primarily because we have to. Resources that were used in certain ways previously are suddenly up for reinterpretation, and we are less drawn to our memory banks for solutions.  

Indeed, so compelling is this idea of deprivation to creativity, that even calling it to mind can be shown to change the way we act. In one study, Ravi Mehta at the University of Illinois and Meng Zhu at Johns Hopkins University examined how thinking about scarcity or abundance influences how creatively people use their resources. They had one group of subjects write an essay about growing up with abundant resources and had another group write about growing up with very little. They then had both groups look at how to solve the problem of how to use up an oversupply of bubble wrap at the university. When the results from both groups were assessed by judges, the scarcity-thinking group were scored much higher for their creative solutions. 

So, this is a super interesting idea, given the times we find ourselves living in. If simply thinking about deprivation can drive more creative output, what must happen when an entire city or population is completely constrained in a way not seen before? Surely such massive constraints must create extremely fertile ground for innovation and creativity? Surely, we would see an enormous surge in new thinking at both the individual and organisational level? 

Well, yes and no is probably the answer to that question. Yes, there have been some truly amazing displays of innovation under constraint – most notably the global development of not one, but five Covid-19 vaccines in less than a quarter of the time it took for the previous fastest to come into production. Including ones that harness completely new technologies for providing immunity to viruses.  

But on the whole, it feels that most organisations have not embraced present constraints as an opportunity to provide fresh perspective on future strategy. For the most part, from an organisational perspective, innovation during Covid seems to be more focused on ways of working around the effects of lockdowns and social restrictions in what might be considered a more temporary way – looking for solutions that preserve existing practices and thinking as much as possible, rather than embracing these as fundamental change agents. Teams and Zoom replaces in-person meetings, but the same approach to meetings and organisational control sits underneath. New products and services are quickly stood up as workarounds, but an expectation of a return to the norm lies hiding in the shadows. 

Not unexpectedly, given the swiftness of their descent, it feels we have largely embraced these constraints as temporary roadblocks, rather than a fundamental switching of the tracks. And as such, their role as a creative stimulus to strategy feels a bit undercooked. We haven’t burned the boats on the beach, we’ve merely hidden them from sight under a tarp. And while that remains the case, just like any right-thinking individual in Cortes’s 600-man squad, we’ll have one eye on the possibility of getting back to them before too long. 

What best practice in the world of using constraints tells us, is that when we go all-in, we transform our thinking and our perspective.

So what could be possible for the first-mover businesses who adopt some of the core Cultural Currents being accelerated by our current constraints to guide their thinking? Everything we see in our work suggests a significant advantage is possible. There are few moments in life where behavioural change is easy to achieve, both from a customer and an employee standpoint. But this is one where the barriers are lower.  

This article was published in the latest issue of Frame magazine.

Frame magazine

Andrew Lewis
Managing Director at TRA

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