Project constraints: The mother of creativity

Your budget is small, deadline is tight, toolbox is limited, and team is overextended…

No one likes project constraints. They threaten our freedom. They put a fence around our projects and cut us off from the world of possibilities. But constraints can also rev up creativity. Without endless time, money, or resources, we are forced to think harder and work smarter. The fence that constrains us can also be the scaffolding that shapes our projects.

Also read, “Context changes everything: step back and take a look at the big picture.”

The next time you encounter a constraint (or an army of them!) use these six big ideas to make it work in your favor.



Identify project constraints early.

When you discover halfway through a project that your target audience is third graders instead of Ph.D. candidates, you may have to start over — a sure way to burn through time and budget. But if you can identify constraints at the beginning of a project, you can use them to outline opportunities and plot your course. To find constraints, think about resources, timing, regulations, metrics, processes, tools, culture, and people.



Find hidden constraints.

The most obvious constraints are often the most commonly overlooked — so get ready to suss them out. Constraints can be so evident to your boss, client, or colleague that he or she fails to mention them. Why wouldn’t the CEO review every draft? Of course the packaging is edible! Clearly, we’ll launch in Spain. Be extra wary of projects that seem to be constraint-free. Constraints are there. You just haven’t found them yet.



Watch out for artificial project constraints.

Sometimes personal preferences masquerade as constraints. Does it have to be magenta because that’s the most effective color — or because that was your alma mater’s color? Jumping to a solution too quickly can also provide false constraints. Do you really need a full-day face-to-face — or is that just how you’ve always done it? Develop the habit of poking at constraints to test whether they’re solid.



Turn off constraints temporarily.

When project constraints feel too limiting, turn them off for awhile to spur creativity. Imagine you have a magic wand and could do anything to reach your goal. What would it be? Hire an expert? Break out of a silo? Invent new technology? Once you envision the magic solution, work backward. You may find you can execute it within the constraints.



Add constraints to encourage innovation.

When you need to generate new ideas or spark new possibilities, try adding constraints. One strategy is to ask “what if?” What if the product weighed 50 percent less? What if it were eco-friendly? Or what if you had to use it in the dark? When you use constraints to block the obvious solution, you’re forced to be more creative. Adding constraints can lead you to innovation.



Embrace the project constraints and move on.

Having fewer options means you can choose one more quickly. This frees you to spend more resources building and implementing the solution instead of exploring alternatives. Want jet-setters to access and author your travel reviews? Don’t waste time benchmarking websites. Accept the constraints of social and mobile, and put your energy into testing a beta app with your target audience.

Up next: “Dealing with uncertainty in innovation”


First published in Design Goggles, our seven-part series in TEQ Magazine.