Many people often think that creativity flourishes when people are not constrained in any way. Give people total freedom to think and generate ideas, and they will be highly creative. That's the conventional wisdom. However, some research shows that constraints actually can enhance creativity. The Boston Globe reported this weekend on a study by Catrinal Haught-Tromp. The forthcoming article is titled, "The Green Eggs and Ham Hypothesis: How Constraints Facilitate Creativity." The scholar chose this title because the highly creative book by Dr. Seuss only uses 50 words. Haught-Tromp conducted experiments to examine whether constraints can stimulate creativity. Haught-Tromp asked the research subjects to develop two-line rhymes for greeting cards. In some circumstances, she required the subjects to include a particular noun in their rhyme. Outsiders judged the rhymes developed with this constraint to be more creative. Moreover, she found that subjects working without the constraint tended to be more creative when developing a rhyme after they had worked in the constrained condition (as opposed to before they faced the constrained condition). The constraint did not just generate more creativity in the moment; the effect seemed to persist.
Is there a practical example of how constraints can fuel creativity. Consider IDEO, one of the world's leading product design firms. At first glance, when you walk into their offices, you might think that they provide their staff members the freedom to design as they wish. However, a closer look reveals a clear method/process by which they work. Moreover, as IDEO staff members brainstorm, they follow certain ground rules for how such sessions should take place. In short, constraints do exist at the firm, and they seem to enhance rather than detract from the creativity of the solutions that they design.