Constraints Drive Creative Solutions, But Not Necessarily Better Ones.

If you do a quick Google search to determine the effect of constraints on innovation you will find a plethora of articles all clamoring to tell you the exact same thing: Having constraints increases the creative quality of your work.

People love to write about the seemingly paradoxical idea that having boundaries and limits can produce boundless and limitless thinking. We can all relate to the stress of working around limitations in time, ability, and resources so it is surprising to hear that limitations actually help us make progress when faced with a paralyzing number of possibilities. Constraints are a necessary evil that force you to find clever ways to accomplish your goal by narrowing your focus.

That constraints drive creativity is undeniable and I’m not here to argue against that fact. (Actually, I couldn’t find even a single internet article that argued against it.) What I am here to do is pose a slightly different question: Does working with constraints produce better solutions, irrespective of creativity?

That’s the question I asked myself last week after realizing that I had over-constrained my design and ended up with something really creative but also impractical. Currently I’m designing a load frame for running strength tests on 3D printed objects, one test being a static four point bend. I thought I’d get the bending fixture out of the way by going to Lowe’s and figuring it out on the spot, because that’s how I roll.


It’s easy, just ask yourself: What would MacGyver do?

45 minutes later I found myself still at Lowe’s staring at a pile of random hardware with a vision in my mind for a very “unique” four point bend fixture. Because I’m such a frugal person I usually take one last moment before checkout to ask myself if I really want to commit to buying a bunch of stuff. In this case the answer was a definite NO. While I had come up with a very creative solution, I should not have limited myself to using only parts available at Lowe’s and one evening’s worth of thought. Just because I had figured out a creative way to do something, didn’t make it the best way (or even a very good one). I ended up putting everything back and going home.

On my way home I thought a bit more about the effect of constraints on the quality of ideas and I remembered an awesome story:


How would you use $5 and 2 hours to earn as much money as possible? That was the question posed to students by Professor Tina Seelig at Stanford University as part of an engineering entrepreneurship program. Students were divided into teams and provided an envelope containing $5 and were allowed to spend as much time planning as they wanted. The stipulation was that once the envelope was opened the team would only have 2 hours to generate as much profit as possible. At the end of the 4 days allotted for the assignment, students were to give an oral presentation to the rest of their class. So what did they come up with?

The most common solutions were very simple businesses relying on buying cheap input materials and increasing their perceived value. These groups started car washes and lemonade stands and were able to generate a very small profit. (When I first heard this story my idea for using the $5 was to buy cheap Mr. Freeze popsicles and sell them on a busy corner.)

The most successful groups realized that $5 and 2 hours was simply too great of a limitation to work around. Those constraints made it impossible to generate any significant income, no matter how creative you are. The best solutions came from teams who didn’t even use the $5 at all and instead asked themselves the broader question of how to create value if they started with absolutely nothing.

One successful team waited in lines at busy restaurants so they could sell their spot at the front to impatient diners. Another team setup a bike tire air pressure checking stand in front of their university and asked for donations instead of specific payments. The most successful team, however, realized that having the full attention of their class during the oral presentation was the most valuable resource and they used that time to advertise for a company in return for $650.


~~Clearly working within constraints doesn’t necessarily produce the best solutions, so what specific things can I do to balance creative solutions with objectively good ones?

  1.  The truth is that constraints are a double edged sword. Don’t forget that limitations can increase your focus but do so to the detriment of your ability to see the big picture.  When you MacGyver something together it may get you by for now, but that doesn’t mean it is something you will want to repeat. To get around this problem take some time for reflection and step back to get a bird’s eye view of the situation and your proposed solution.  It’s OK stop and question your assumptions.

apollo 13 filter fix

Apollo 13 Mission CO2 filter fix. Creative: Yes, Optimal: No

  1. Understand that inexperience is a huge constraint in and of itself. If you want a creative solution to your problem, ask a child how to solve it. If you want a solution that is tried and true, ask someone with grey hair. As Shunryu Suzuki said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few”. If you want the best overall solution then get those two age stereotyped groups together for some collaboration.
  1. Spend time doing research before devoting yourself to a single design. There’s no reason to constrain yourself to the best solution that you can think of. Whatever wheel you are working on it has almost always already been invented in some form.
  1. Knowing things exist is kind of a big deal. Maybe you have a habit of getting everything you need exclusively from brick and mortar stores. If so, realize that there are probably a ton of off the shelf parts on the internet that would easily solve your problems if only you would take the time to look for them.


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