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Creativity: How constraints drive genius

By David Sturt

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, Sept. 23 2013 3:05 p.m. MDT

Here's an interesting example of possibilities within constraints. Do you know how many building combinations are possible with just six regular eight-stud Lego bricks?

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Note: This article originally appeared on Forbes.com

It would be easy to assume that a man considered to be one of the most brilliant minds in modern architecture loves nothing more than a project without boundaries, lawless creativity and unrestricted options.

However, if you ask architect Frank Gehry, best known for building the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, what really inspires his work, he may give you an unexpected answer: limitations and constraints.

Contrary to the way most of us think about creativity and great work — that it’s a product of free-thinking, no rules and unlimited options — Gehry’s comments confirm a finding that we didn’t expect when we began analyzing data collected from our comprehensive study of award-winning work.

Basically, we found that people who create new value on the job are often inspired by their constraints.

Obviously, when data from 1.7 million corporate awards is analyzed, the award recipients aren’t all people like Gehry. Instead, the vast majority of them are people like you and me working in normal jobs, with the usual constraints and with policies they must follow, procedures they must practice and rules that must be obeyed.

Nevertheless, think about your constraints for a moment not as barriers to your ability to innovate, but instead as a puzzle that holds the opportunity for creativity and great work. It was, in fact, the strict standards for acoustics at Disney Hall that led to Gehry’s award-winning and unique design of the building’s interior space. And, it was that internal design (constructed to create impeccable acoustics), which inspired the soaring, graceful steel exterior that has become iconic.

Constraints, in fact, are so crucial to creativity that Gehry names one of his greatest architectural challenges as the time he was asked to design a house with zero constraints.

“I had a horrible time with it,” he said. “I had to look in the mirror a lot. Who am I? Why am I doing this? What is this all about? It’s better to have some problem to work on,” Gehry explained. “I think we turn those constraints into action.”

Our research of award-winning work mirrors those sentiments. Awards are frequently given because people performed great work within their constraints. They solved problems. They overcame hurdles. And, they made a difference that someone loved.

Constraints give us a starting point and some building blocks to work with such as a problem to solve, an innovative twist to be revealed, or a person to please. And, it doesn’t matter how tightly constrained we feel. The world is filled with amazing possibilities derived from limited resources and elements.

Consider the fact that every color in nature comes from just red, yellow and blue. Yet, we can mix them together in millions of combinations. Every pop song, symphony, jingle, ditty and aria in the western world starts with just 12 notes in the chromatic scale. Everything on the planet, including each of us, is made up of just 118 known chemical elements. Constraints? Absolutely. But they’re a starting point for seemingly endless creativity and possibility.

Here’s another interesting example of possibilities within constraints. Do you know how many building combinations are possible with just six regular eight-stud Lego bricks?

A little elementary math might lead you to say there are 48 combinations. Keep challenging those constraints and you might guess there are a few thousand. But according to howstuffworks.com, six regular eight-stud Lego bricks can be put together in more than 900,000,000 different ways.

Constraints: we actually need them to get creative. We need the boundaries to inspire award-winning thinking — thinking that changes possibility.

Max Shephard is another guy who tested what’s possible with tight constraints. He built a prosthetic arm with fully functioning fingers, capable of mimicking all natural movements of the human hand. His constraint? He had to build it entirely out of Legos.

When it comes to creativity, start with your constraints. They are the foundational elements of your great work. Look beyond the rules, the norms, the procedures and the policies. Look beyond what’s being done and start seeing what’s possible. And, if you’re feeling creatively stumped, do something you probably never considered before, “embrace your constraints.”

David Sturt is an executive vice president at O.C. Tanner and author of the New York Times best-seller "Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love" (McGraw-Hill). You can follow him on twitter @david_sturt or visit www.greatwork.com.

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