I’m on the phone with my mom right now, which she says is procrastinating. I asked her, “Why is writing so hard?” Her answer: “Because it’s a creative effort.”
When you’re tasked with conjuring up something innovative, something new, you might think it’s best to open up all the options you can. But think of this scenario from the TED talk “The Power of Creative Constraints”:
“Imagine you’re asked to invent something new. It could be whatever you want made from anything you choose in any shape or size. That kind of creative freedom sounds so liberating, doesn’t it? Or does it? If you’re like most people, you’d probably be paralyzed by this task. Without more guidance, where would you even begin? As it turns out, boundless freedom isn’t always helpful.”
So, too much creative freedom could be cementing your writer’s block (or whatever block applies to your creative domain). But go to the other end of the spectrum, and you’re not heading for much creativity either. Step by step instructions are great when you’re looking for reliability, and a lot of the time, we are. My mom has a blue binder full of stained recipes in plastic page protectors. Most of the time when she cooks, she follows the recipes pretty exactly, maybe making one or two adjustments after trying it out a few times. But once a year, our kitchen becomes a wild playground for creative experimentation: the annual Haun family Chopped.
Each year, I go out to different grocery stores to gather supplies to model the Food Network show Chopped. I pick out four secret ingredients for each round of the competition: a 20-minute appetizer round, 30-minute entrée, and 30-minute dessert. After I do my shopping, I prep the kitchen by preheating the oven, boiling water, and setting up the induction burner. Then my parents are ready to open the baskets and compete to make a cohesive, creative dish using all of the secret basket ingredients for that round in that time allotted — no recipes allowed.
But of course, by the nature of the game, there are plenty of restrictions, and pretty challenging ones at that — think having to make an appetizer featuring guava paste, yellow rice, spam, and bell peppers. Introducing creative constraints to the innovation process can help provide focus and spur new ideas. I imagine if I were to give my parents free reign over the pantry, endless time, access to any resource, and the simple challenge to create a new meal, we probably would have ended up with some safer bets than what has come out of the Chopped kitchen so far because “when there are no constraints on the creative process, complacency sets in, and people follow what psychologists call the path-of-least-resistance”.  And I bet it would have been a less energizing process too.
Through our annual competition, we’ve created a safe space for radical experimentation. We expect and tease each other about the failures, and we’re generous with our praise for everything that somehow turns out edible. Our goal is less about the food and more about having fun together and playing with culinary skills we hesitate to try otherwise (turns out a rolled cake is more difficult to make than you’d think!). We’ve created “a strong innovation climate — one that is characterized by support for innovation, shared vision and objectives, shared commitment to excel, and sense of security”. Okay, maybe we’re a little lax on the excel part.
Sure, we’ve had plenty of iffy bites come out of these Chopped meals. Try as you might, you can’t fry things in coconut milk. Most of it is passable, but not something we’d ever order off a menu. But every now and then, the circumstances of Chopped come together to make some real winners that earn a spot in the regular dinner rotation. My personal favorite is when Dad whipped up canned tuna in the style of crab cakes. I’ve made those more than a few times since (much easier for a college budget).
So maybe the next time you’re feeling stuck on a creative challenge, lean into the challenge part by adding more constraints. I eventually got going on this article by pulling out my hourglass and self-imposing a deadline to get the first few paragraphs in place. Organizationally, there are plenty of ways to impose creative constraints. Some tactics are to “limit inputs” (such as the time limits in Chopped), “enforce specific processes”, or “set specific output requirements”. Just be sure to leave some creative room to breathe.
Alicia Haun is a content marketing intern at Riverbank Consulting Group. Alicia is a senior at the University of Michigan, where she also works with the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business. Alicia is passionate about the field of positive organizational psychology and looks forward to helping work become a place of flourishing.