Creativity Needs Constraint

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One crisp fall afternoon during my freshmen year at Yale University, I passed through the Memorial Rotunda on to Beinecke Plaza to find a large group of people sitting on the white marble slabs immersed in some kind of performance. Curious of the spectacle, I joined the crowd. One of the performers asked the audience to call out random jobs. “Plumber,” “wine taster,” and “scuba diver” emerged from the crowd. Next the performers asked for a place and “Key West,” “Greenland,” and “International Space Station” followed. To my amazement three performers began to weave together a hilarious story about a wine taster working on the International Space Station. After the performance I returned to my dorm certain that the story had been preplanned and the suggestions were actually offered by team members under cover. How could any one individual craft such a clever story off the cuff, much less three separate actors working together? I later learned that the art form I had witnessed was called improvisational theater or “Improv” for short.


Modern improvisational theater is descended from the Italian Commedia Dell’Arte, which emerged in the 16th century. Theater troupes toured throughout Europe, traveling from town to town to perform commedia. Performances consisted of set scenes and improvised dialogue that could quickly be adapted to local sentiment and happenings. For around two hundred years the art form flourished, but it eventually lost many of its improvisational elements in favor of set dialogue.

Improv was later rediscovered by Viola Spolin via her “Theater Games,” which she used to train children and amateur actors in a settlement house-theater in Chicago during the 1920s. Spolin’s son, Paul Sills, would later use his mother’s techniques as the basis for launching the Compass Players, the first professional improvisational theater in the country. In 1959, Sills cofounded The Second City, the most famous improvisational theater in the US and a feeder for Saturday Night Live. Notable actors who trained at The Second City include: Joan Rivers, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, Mike Myers, Steve Carell, Stephen Cobert and Tina Fey.

Rules of Improvisation

While improv performers seem to magically whip up impressive amounts of creativity out of thin air, on closer examination, we discover that the medium is actually not as free as it might first appear. In fact, the performers are all following a common set of rules that both define the art form and the individual games that make up each performance. David Alger, Producing Director at California’s Pan Theater, describes Improv’s main rules as follows:

  1. Say “yes’and!”
  2. Add new information.
  3. Don’t block.
  4. Avoid asking questions – unless you’re also adding information.
  5. Play in the present and use the moment.
  6. Establish the location.
  7. Be specific and provide colorful details.
  8. Change, Change, Change!
  9. For serious and emotional scenes, focus on characters and relationships.
  10. For humorous scenes, take choices to the nth degree or focus on actions/objects.

Creativity & Constraint

Improv is not alone in its adherence to rules. Jazz musicians use a common scale, meter and chord progressions to improvise in clubs. Radio announcers paint with words whereas painters paint with brushes. As Melissa Mayer noted in a 2006 Businessweek article, “Constraints shape and focus problems and provide clear challenges to overcome. Creativity thrives best when constrained.”

Mayer is not alone. For Brooklyn designer Damien Correll, “constraints usually make me think in a different way than I would maybe naturally think. I find they make the process a little more enjoyable and the final output is usually something I’m more proud of.”

Teresa Amiagle, a Business Professor at Harvard, notes how most people freeze when faced with the task of drawing something creative on a blank piece of paper. In contrast, Amiagle reflects how it is much easier to be creative when the piece of paper has a squiggly line on it.

So how do you unleash the creativity in your team leveraging constraint?

  1. Define the problem – What is the objective of the innovation? Without clearly defining the problem, the team is likely to innovate their way in the wrong direction.
  2. Identify the constraints – Don’t give your team a blank piece of paper. Ground the problem with some logical boundaries, but be careful with making the box too small. Discuss available resources. History is ripe with examples of resource-constrained teams beating better-funded competitors, but artificial scarcity does not lead to similar results. Give your team reasonable resources with which to innovate.
  3. Discuss the rules – Just like improv, all creative processes must have basic rules of engagement that set expectations and guide participants’ behavior.
  4. Get the ball rolling – Anyone who has pushed a stalled car before will know that the most difficult part is the beginning. If your team is not experienced with creative processes, they may need a starting point to begin the process. It’s ok to provide a squiggly line, but be careful with guiding the process too much.

Constraints are essential in generating game-changing creativity. Embrace the constraints and your team will be well on your way toward an interesting outcome.

Photo Credit: waferboard

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2 Responses

  1. Nancy
    | Reply

    I think a lot of companies are beginning to bring in improv instructors to help their employees be more creative. I think improv really activates the right brain, teaches us to trust and rely on our intuition, helps us to cultivate mindfulness and playfulness, enables us to live in the present moment, and also hones our communication and interpersonal skills (both listening/paying attention and speech/delivery — presence, learning how to build out a conversation, “yes and”). My friend who is an executive coach can’t say enough about improv and professional skill building.

    • Joel
      | Reply

      Nancy, thanks for the comment. There is definitely a lot the business world can learn from artists and performers.

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