Put Constraints on Creativity to Set it Free


Would more rules fuel your creativity?

During the heart of the Soviet era, officials banned tattooing in prison (as most prisons do). Yet the prisoners seemed to follow an unwritten rule that everyone must have tattoos to tell the story of their criminal exploits. Despite the law against it, an estimated 90 percent of the jailed population got ink during their stay.

How did they pull this off? They got creative. Tattoo artists made do with what they had. They made ink from burnt rubber and urine and formed needles out of guitar strings and modified electric shavers.

Despite the probable lack of artistic training, and with only the most rudimentary equipment, many of these tattoos were quite intricate.

Creativity found a way in one of the most regimented systems on the planet.

When we think of “creativity” in marketing, we often focus on “big C” creativity. Big C Creativity involves generating a new idea or product that will have a big impact. The idea might be small (such as a poem, article, or video), or it might be big (a new ad campaign, brand, product, or patentable process). On the other hand, “little C” creativity involves finding a way to innovate within our everyday constraints.

When I begin a storytelling workshop, the group leader opens up with words of encouragement for the team that often go like this: “I want you all to focus on new things, new ways, new ideas. There are no rules. Please feel free to be creative today.”

I think that’s wonderful, but I make sure to add: “Well, there will be some rules and limitations. And we won’t only talk about new ideas – we’re also going to work on improving some existing projects and processes too.”

That’s Little C creativity – in other words, what happens when we operate within a defined set of rules and invent better solutions. This is the creativity a marketer uses to identify a new audience for existing content, videographer uses to find just the perfect way to tell a story using already collected footage, or a teacher uses to find a new method to teach division.

And while most of our businesses aren’t quite as limiting as a Soviet prison, when it comes to “Little C” creativity, more constraints can actually improve our creative performance.

When faced with a creative challenge, research suggests that we tend to lean on the best-case-scenario or suggest the things we’ve already either dreamed up or that already as exemplars in the space. For example, tasked to come up with the most innovative and creative content platform – attendees of my seminars often reproduce the best content platforms they’ve already seen. But if I ask them to come up with the innovative and creative content that fits in a minuscule budget, and the answers are much more likely to be innovative.

Researchers have found constraints generate more creative solutions in many activities (fixing toys, cooking meals, designing new products and so on).     

Exercising creativity is important for content and marketing teams.

I’ve seen companies prescribe space, time, budget, and energy toward making creativity a priority and ending up with happier teams and successful solutions to problems.

Too often, though, brainstorming exercises focus only on Big C creative ideas, removing all constraints and seeing what bubbles up out of the team’s collective consciousness. Don’t get me wrong, saving space to work on new, big ideas is important. But working on little C creativity – with constraints, limitations, and guard rails – can help.

Sometimes the most creative way to think outside the box is to lock yourself in it. 

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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