Constraints and Creativity (the mother of innovation)

by Peter Cook

Constraints and Creativity (the mother of innovation) - Innovation ExcellenceThere is a school of thought that says that creativity is enhanced by having all the resources you need. There is an equal and opposite school that suggests that constraints and limitations can spur ingenious thinking.  It is to this view that I want to turn. Before we look at the business applications of constrained thinking, let’s look at the gypsy jazz musician Django Reinhardt who uses two fingers to play the guitar better than most people with five:


Django accidentally fused two of his fingers together in an accident at an early age. He relearned to play the guitar using the two remaining fingers and is an acknowledged genius in his genre.

Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi accidentally ‘copied’ Django’s loss after an accident in a sheet metal factory, where he lost the tips of the middle and ring finger of his right hand (ouch!) Inspired by Reinhardt, Iommi made plastic covers for his fingers by melting plastic bottles and dipping them in while the plastic was soft enough to be shaped. Check Iommi’s thoughts out about his approach on YouTube:

How do constraints work in business?

Businessman Sir Richard Branson has utilised his ‘constraint’ of dyslexia to make him a much better at delegating and hiring people who he must trust in order to get things done. He does not meddle because, in some cases, he quite simply can’t.

In my own case, working in pharmaceutical innovation, it is quite surprising to note that many of the world’s breakthrough therapies were not discovered in sterile glass corporate buildings, but often in rather unpromising ‘sheds’, by people who had been starved of budget, resources, and attention by the corporate centre.  I’m not suggesting that resource constraints should become a modus operandi for running innovative businesses. It’s just that sometimes opulence does not produce the conditions where people give that extra effort that leads to innovative breakthroughs.

What can we learn from using constraints for creativity?

At a personal level, give someone all s/he needs and he may use those resources to come up with something ingenious.  Tell him or her that it’s impossible or there isn’t time and they might spend a lot more effort proving you wrong. Clearly, this is not an absolute truth in all circumstances as some people are motivated by possibility, others by necessity. Nonetheless, the theory of constraints is widely ignored.

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Peter Cook leads Human Dynamics and The Academy of Rock, providing Keynotes, Organisational Development and Coaching. He is the author of seven books on business leadership. His three passions are science, business and music, having led innovation teams for 18 years to develop life-saving drugs including the first treatments for AIDS and the development of Human Insulin. Peter is Music and Business editor at Innovation Excellence. You can follow him on twitter @Academyofrock.

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