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Nick Skillicorn

CEO & Founder, Innovation Coach at Improvides
Voted as the world's #7 Innovation blogger in 2014, I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love.

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Nick Skillicorn
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Most managers want their people to “think outside the box” and come up with “blue sky ideas”. What they don’t realise is that setting constraints on your creative process will often make it easier to come up with really special ideas.

Weird Al” Yankovic

Weird Al” Yankovic

For many people, Weird Al Yankovic is considered a bit of a joke. For those of you who don’t know him, he’s an American musician who spoofs / satirises songs which are popular at the time, and became popular in the early 1990’s with songs like Amish Paradise, Like a Surgeon and Eat It. But this week, his new album Mandatory Fun has just topped the album charts after going viral, and people are taking him a bit more seriously.

I’m not going to write much about the content of the new album, although I’ve included my two favorite tracks here: ‘Word Crimes’ (based on Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke) and ‘Foil’, (based on Royals by Lorde). Instead, I want to use him as an example of how having creative constraints is often one of the most effective ways to produce great creative work.

By satirising specific songs, Weird Al needs to use the existing melody, rhythm, intonation and even rhyme scheme as the original song, but use new words to bring about a completely different meaning. This can be extremely challenging, and many people would expect it to be much harder to come up with ideas if your palette of choices is so limited. Surely it makes more sense that if you give an artist complete freedom to produce anything they like, a ‘blank slate’ some would say, they will be able to produce their best work. But in reality, many artists find such creative constraints free their creativity.

Put another way, many artists admit to struggling to come up with ideas when faces with a blank sheet of paper, especially if they are given complete freedom of time and budget. One of the best known advocates of placing constraints on yourself to spur on your creativity is Grammy-winning White Stripes frontman Jack White.

“Deadlines and things make you creative. But opportunity and telling yourself  ‘oh you have all the time in the world, all the money in the world, all the colours in the palette you want, anything you want’; that just kills creativity” – Jack White

Why do constraints make it easier?

There’s a strong scientific basis as to why starting with a completely blank sheet can be so difficult. All ideas are new connections between existing knowledge, context and temporary ideas happening in your brain. A single trigger will begin sparking connections in parallel throughout several parts of the brain, which then branch out into other new connections. A complete lack of constraints (“create  anything you want”) forces your brain to essentially search all of its connections, without a starting point / trigger for the process.

That process is extremely energy inefficient and therefore difficult for the brain. However, in a recent interview I showed you how neuroscientists now estimate that 99% of mental activity is subconscious, without you being aware of it. And by having some constraints, whether it is as simple as knowing what cannot be included in the work, can kick-start your mental search to find potential solutions. More importantly, it helps your brain focus on developing ideas which are more likely to meet the criteria of success, whether it’s for a specific artistic medium or a new business solution addressing specific customer requirements.

So the next time you’re stuck for an idea, instead of trying to ‘think outside of the box’, first list out what constraints are actually forming the box edges (essentially, what the customers and you find valuable). You’ll find it a lot easier to then create something which fits inside the box perfectly.

Do you find it easier or harder to start with a blank slate, and if so how do you overcome this? Let me know in the comments below.

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