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Constraints and Creativity

Constraints and Creativity. In the film It Might Get Loud, guitarist Jack White says that technology makes us lazy and laziness is bad for creativity. He is right. My first guitar cost £10, the strings stood about an inch (slight exaggeration but not much) from the neck which made my fingers work much harder to play the instrument than normal. As a result, people tell me that I can bend strings an incredible amount akin to Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd. In my other life as a composer of electronic music, the same issue applies.  

White often uses low-quality instruments to force him to play differently, although the Gretsch he sometimes plays with, is not one of them! He says:

“If it takes me three steps to get to the organ, then I’ll put it four steps away. I’ll have to run faster, I’ll have to push myself harder to get to it.”

Jack White

This is something I completely understand as a musician and a scientist. Some of the best music I made was written using poor equipment where there had to be some kind of struggle to extract something from it. I spent a lot of time in the 1980’s and 1990’s chaining reel to reel tape recorders together, reversing and splicing tape to create sounds that had never been heard before. In the current age of digital music, with hundreds of thousands of sampled instruments to choose from, the job of music production is now about making good decisions as it is over mastery of the instrument itself. One can drown in choices and never produce anything of value to the listener.

Contrary to popular opinion, constraints are useful for creativity in all walks of life. James Dyson would not have invented the Dyson vacuum cleaner if he had not become frustrated at his vacuum cleaner which “did not suck”. Isambard Kingdom Brunel would have not built the Great Western Railway without feeling frustrated that he could not get to Cornwall quickly, and so on.

In business and life, it is important to separate what I call “real constraints” from “imaginary ones”. A real constraint might be a law of physics, an imaginary one simply an assumption, such as a way of doing things that has become a habit or paradigm within an industry. In my own experience, I was partly responsible for developing the world’s first HIV / AIDS treatment.

A real constraint was that of time.

We needed to collapse the traditional drug development process time to bring the drug to market as quickly and safely as possible.  At that time Wellcome was renowned for making tablet formulations and this would have been our default response to the situation.  In the event, we elected to formulate the product as a capsule, something we were not experienced with, but which would deliver the quickest route to market as it did not require us to produce a “recipe” which would need extensive testing. This committed us to a rapid learning programme of work to develop a capsule formulation.  In doing so we eliminated the artificial constraint of “we always do it that way”.

From the bench to the patient
© Peter Cook

When we design creative thinking sessions for companies seeking to rethink their strategy, products, services and internal processes, I like to boundary the topic under study with the real constraints that surround it. These should not be too many – too many constraints tend to stifle ingenious thinking and no constraints tend to produce unfocused creativity. Long experience in working with people and companies that look for commercial creativity i.e. ideas that have utility suggests that this is wasteful and often does not lead to execution as the ideas developed do not pass the obstacles that are in the way of execution. The theory of constraints is well documented and mostly forgotten by people who think only about the positive side of business improvement.


1. Welcome constraints into business thinking. Hunt them down and the people who place them in the way of progress.

2. Know the difference between real constraints and imaginary ones. Real constraints must be respected and addressed. Imaginary ones must be bypassed.

3. Use ingenious thinking to navigate past constraints. Contact me for details on several hundred methods of ingenious thinking for your business.

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Peter Cook
Peter Cookhttp://www.humdyn.co.uk/aboutus/
Peter Cook leads Human Dynamics, offering Business and Organisation Development. He also delivers keynotes around the world that blend business intelligence with parallel lessons from music via The Academy of Rock. Author of and contributor to eleven books on business leadership, acclaimed by Tom Peters, Professors Charles Handy, Adrian Furnham and Harvey Goldsmith CBE. His three passions are science, business and music, having led innovation teams for 18 years to develop life-saving drugs including the first treatments for AIDS, Herpes and the development of Human Insulin. 18 years in academia and 18 + years running his businesses. All his life since the age of four playing music.

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