Why Boundaries Are The Best Thing For Your Creativity

To prevent throwing all of your ideas in the trash at the end of the day, lay down some ground rules first.

Why Boundaries Are The Best Thing For Your Creativity
[Image: Flickr user Michael Clark]

“Think outside the box,” “Break down your walls,” “Test your boundaries!”


Creative thinkers, evidently, have some issues with drawing lines around their blue-sky ideals. But if whatever ideas we’re storming up are going to be useful, they need to have some boundaries around them.

Let’s take a pressing real world problem as an example: contending with tuberculosis. Joseph V. Sinfield, Tim Gustafson, and Brian Hindo–three of the key people at the innovation consultancy Innosight–were recently brought in by the Lilly Foundation and the World Health organization for a massive two-day ideation session.

The goal, shared on the Sloan Review, was to build a plan for distributing the drugs to treat the 500,000 cases of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis that are active around the world. Only 20,000 of those cases currently have access to the right drugs.

So how did the best minds in global health form ideas? The very first step, the authors emphasized, was to define the problem and solution space–in other words, to make some borders.

in praise of walls

Boundaries are crucial for all kinds of creativity. The syllabic structure and limitations of a haiku are what make the poem so powerful. Similarly, we need limits when we wade into brainstorming.

The Sloan authors agreed: “It’s important to delineate boundaries around both the problem (what exactly you’re proposing to solve) and the solution (what types of answers you seek and find acceptable).”


The tuberculosis team first set boundaries for the problem. They focused on an issue they considered to have the most impact on patients–the drug supply chain–and ruled out other problems like diagnosis or drug development.

Next, they decided on parameters for their solutions. For one, solutions had to result in patient impact within three years. The team considered this a calculated risk because it might tamper down a more long-term solution, but they reasoned that quick, tangible wins were the more important goal.

Though they are indeed a limitation, boundaries stop stagnation in four ways:

1. People don’t waste time on ideas that’ll get discarded later

A young Johnny Depp was slated to have a big role in Oliver Stone’s Platoon, but you’d never know it–the director edited him almost entirely out of the film. His efforts ended up on the cutting room floor, a classic example of talent gone to waste.

2. The sense of what’s possible can be expanded

Poet Laynie Brown insists that boundaries can free up creativity. By having to fit an idea into a rhythm scheme, writers are forced to become familiar with the music of the language, building a skill that could otherwise be left undeveloped.

3. Your delving is directed to a circumscribed area

Trying to beat your best time in running a mile is a lot more stimulating that just jogging around a park, and giving yourself 15 minutes to rifle through your inbox is much less soul-draining than losing an hour to your email.


4. Your ideas actually have the potential to make it to the execution stage

As the Sloan authors emphasized, directed brainstorming is better than loose ideation because you’re tying ideas to outcomes. By putting boundaries in place, the tuberculosis proposals were tailored to solutions.

Not long after the two-day meeting, the value of setting boundaries became clear. Within five months, the team’s ideas received commitments of funding and piloting by prominent health organizations.

Hat tip: The Sloan Review


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.