Talk to creative types and you often hear this: An unlimited budget is the kiss of death. You can do anything, but unlimited choice is paralyzing. You also never have to admit something isn’t working because you can just throw more money at the problem.
"We think we want wide-open spaces when we’re trying to start something new, but in fact having some constraints, having something to bump against, that gives information, and that can be a tool of creation," says Whitney Johnson, author of the new book Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work.
Constraints can help creativity. Just look at the TV show Project Runway, where contestants design amazing outfits from such unlikely materials as Polaroid film. Johnson notes that one analysis of fast-growing companies found that most did not get loans or venture capital. The founders boot-strapped their ventures which, if nothing else, made them laser-focused on doing more with less.
That said, if you are facing wide-open space and the mandate to create something, you aren’t doomed. It’s possible to create your own constraints. Here are a few tricks that will put you in a box, so you can then think outside of it.
Done is generally better than perfect. An easy way to create a constraint is to give yourself an aggressive deadline, which you then publicize to raise the stakes. Say you normally take a week to write a report for a client. "If suddenly you have to write it in one day you make different decisions," says Johnson.
You become very focused on whether any given section helps make your case or not, simply because you won’t have time to write it if it doesn’t. Devotees of National Novel Writing Month, in which people write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days, swear by this time-constraint approach. The resulting manuscripts are seldom great, but they exist, and something (unlike nothing) can be turned into something better.
The trick here is to restrict access to your budget. Johnson recommends telling yourself that "whatever I try first probably isn’t going to work, so I’m only going to allocate 20% to the first iteration." The rest of your budget is reserved for later steps. Having less cash forces you to figure out what’s working and what’s not, and figure out creative ways to do any given step for less.
Expertise is valuable, but expectations can kill creativity, which is one reason few sequels are as good as the original novel or film. So spark new thinking by aiming your skills in a different direction, just as J.K. Rowling, an author who does do the sequel thing well, has challenged her post-Harry Potter self to write crime novels. "Require yourself to be a fish out of water," says Johnson. You approach things with fresh eyes and may poke at conventions at the same time.
We all love cheerleaders. But putting yourself around people who aren’t convinced of your brilliance is its own kind of constraint. Skeptics force you "to talk about and articulate what you’re trying to do," says Johnson. If you get yourself in front of three people who don’t agree with your idea, you’ll soon figure out what’s worth keeping and what’s not, and you’ll come up with new ways to frame your project.