The Power of Positive Constraints

by Stephen Shapiro

The Power of Positive ConstraintsIn the world of innovation, there seems to be this belief that we’re supposed to let everybody be free thinkers and let them do whatever they want. But this actually destroys innovation. We need structure. We need constraints.

I’ll give you a really simple example.

If you’ve been  following my blog, you’ll notice that about a month ago, I made a bit of a change.

Now, instead of just writing whenever I feel inspired to do so or writing about whatever I want, I created structure.

Mondays, there’s a Monday Morning Movie. Tuesday, there’ll always be the transcription of the movie and an occasional Tuesday Travel Tip. Wednesday is my Wednesday Work Wisdom. And Friday is my Friday Fun Fact. (Check out my article to see how the makers of Star Trek effectively used the Power of Positive Constraints

As a result, over the past month, without fail, there has been a minimum of four blog entries and, in some weeks there have been five or six.

You’ll notice that when I didn’t have structure, when I didn’t have those positive constraints, there would be some weeks where I would have only one entry. And there would even be periods of time where I wouldn’t write at all.

Constraints are actually a good thing. First of all, they give us structure, forcing us to think more clearly around something specific.  But it also sets a tone for what we need to get done. If I’m committing to completing certain things every day, and I can do those activities consistently, that’s very valuable.

And it’s not just about publicly declaring what you will get done. There’s another value that comes from having positive constraints: It reduces the level of thinking you need to do so that it allows you to be more creative.

If I gave you a blank sheet of paper and said, “Hey, come up with a great idea on how to improve your business,” you might come up with a lot of ideas. Probably, most would be pretty bad.

And I suspect that you would actually struggle to generate even a few great ideas. When given no constraints, we don’t know where to begin.

On the other hand, if we worked on defining a really good problem statement – identifying what is the one area of your business where there is the greatest opportunity; identifying where you differentiate yourself from your competitors – that might actually give you even better results, more creativity, and even more value.

Constraints are not bad. We seem to believe that people should “think outside the box,” but anybody who’s been following my work knows that my philosophy is to find a better box (aka constraints).

Being organized, having structure, and working within constraints are not bad. These are things that will actually increase and enhance your level of creativity.

So, look at an area in your life where you’re struggling to get things done.  Maybe part of the issue is confusion and a lack of clarity. A lack of clarity comes out of a lack of constraints.

Constraints will give you clarity. Anytime that you feel stuck or confused, think about what structures you could put in place that would keep you accountable, that would keep you on track and on target, and improve your level of creativity.

When you start to think about positive constraints as a positive thing, I promise you, you will enhance your creativity massively.

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Stephen ShapiroStephen Shapiro is the author of five books including “Best Practices Are Stupid” and “Personality Poker” (both published by Penguin). He is also a popular innovation speaker and business advisor.


  1. I agree that structure can aid creativity.

    However, I think it’s a question of timing. Imposing a structure on a complex problem may inhibit creativity. My logic is that the structure that first comes to mind is likely to be based on a person’s past experience. This may then make the problem look familiar – leading to an old solution being applied to a new problem.

    It may be better to wait for a new structure to emerge from the problem, or at least play around with different structures. This approach can allow the person to see the problem from different perspectives. In this way I think structure can lead to greater creativity.


  2. I agree. Infact management 101 says that a manager’s first role should be to make the constraints clear for the employees. Making one aware of boundaries leads to set the system in order and context.

    Saying Lets have innovation, go do whatever does not ever get something done.

  3. Terry, thanks for your comment. And I agree with you. You want to spend the time up front to think about the constraints. If you ask the wrong question, you will always get the wrong answer. If you focus on an irrelevant challenge, you will end up with an irrelevant solution. The big issue from my perspective is that we rush too quickly to solution finding and we spend too little time in question formulation. And it is critical when formulating the question that you don’t phrase it in a way that will imply a particular solution. You have to allow for tangental thinking. So, I believe we are on the same page. The question is indeed a matter of timing…and who is doing the work. All the best, Steve

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