The science is inescapable: constraints breed creativity. Creative freedom doesn’t work. Just think for a moment about a project where you have total freedom. Here, I’ll give both of us such a task right now:
Write a blog post about ANYTHING.
Already, we have a few constraints our brains must grapple with:
Write: put your thoughts into complete sentences using the language you know.
A blog post: whatever you picture when you hear “blog post,” you’re now anchoring to that notion of this project.
About ANYTHING: we understand that we should pull from the entire universe of things one could write about, but since we’re incapable of being “one,” and you can only be “you,” you’ll inevitably pull from YOUR list of “anything” — work, hobbies, personal interests, observations from your life, etc.
Without ever naming what we typically think of as “constraints,” our brains have automatically begun constructing the walls of the box.
Next, given that same command to write a post about anything, we move to the obvious constraints that we mindfully seek: When will I write this? Using what app? How long will it be? Any stories or ideas I have percolating? Do I need to submit this to you, Jay? By when? And how?
We are incapable of action when given too much freedom, because complete and total freedom (or how we interpret that idea — the total lack of constraints) literally can’t exist in the creative process.
So when we say “think outside the box,” it’s a sign that we (or, more commonly, the corporate overlord willing to sound so cliche as to say that phrase to begin with) fundamentally do/does not understand creativity. Because it is literally impossible to think outside of all boxes. Our brains immediately begin to construct one the moment we start thinking or doing anything.
Thus, a far better question: When we say “think outside the box,” which box do you mean?
So often, when we yearn for creative freedom, we’re actually yearning for one of two things: We want a different box than the one we’re in, or we don’t understand the walls of the box we’re already in, and so we keep smashing into what feel like invisible walls.
“Think outside the box.” Okay … but which box do you mean?
Do we mean the box where the walls are made up of historical norms at our company? Do we mean the box that fits us into a mold of what someone in our position is “supposed to” act like? Or do we mean the box that shapes who we are as individuals, because I’m quite certain, I can’t demolish THOSE walls? What about the box that helps us understand who we’re serving on the receiving end of our work? Or the wall of our job’s box that has that big painted sign “BUDGET: $5,000; DEADLINE: December 5”? Do we knock that down?
And which box do we build so that we can truly get creative?
When we want to do exceptional work, the science is inescapable: Constraints are our strengths.
We don’t need freedom. We need a better box, or we need clarity on the box we’re in. If you’re a team leader, help the team both understand and agree to the walls of the box. Frustration comes when they dislike the current walls, or run into barriers they didn’t even know where there. Then, crucially, once the box has been made clear: STAY OUT OF THE BOX! Meddling can also lead to frustration and the desire for creative “freedom.”
If you’re an individual contributor, proactively ask about constraints: time, budget, team, inspirational sources, you name it. Help shape the walls of the box. It may seem counterintuitive, but it yields better work, more ideas, and more effective ideas.
Creative freedom doesn’t work. It doesn’t even exist.
“Think outside the box”? That’s missing the truth entirely. Which box do you mean?
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My book contains an entire chapter on constraints and their effects on decision-making in the working world. Through story and science, we explore how to best construct a box that yields exceptional work, outlining the roles that team leaders play and the roles individual contributors play too. For more on that, consider buying Break the Wheel: Question Best Practices, Hone Your Intuition, and Do Your Best Work, on Amazon. Available in print, Kindle, or audiobook form (narrated by me).
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