Welcome Constraints

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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, even though I don’t use particularly a light gauge of strings.

White often uses low-quality instruments to force him to play differently, although the Gretsch he is pictured with above 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.”

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.  Admittedly a few of these nobody ever wanted to hear again either!

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.

The Clifton Suspension Bridge - one of the many of IK Brunel's achievements

The Clifton Suspension Bridge – one of the many of IK Brunel’s achievements

It’s 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 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 “paradigm response” to the situation.  In the event, we elected to formulate the product as a capsule, something we were very inexperienced with but which would deliver the quickest route to market. This committed us to a rapid learning programme of work to develop the product. In doing so we eliminated the artificial constraint of “we always do it that way”.

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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.  Some disagree with me on this, saying that creative thinking should be a no holds barred affair.  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.  I wrote recently for Sir Richard Branson on this topic in terms of the internal barriers to innovation and you can read the post at Virgin.

For many years, I’ve used my “fried egg model” to describe the essentials needed to specify a problem or opportunity that is amenable to ingenious thinking.  I was delighted when Charles Handy told me he had thought of something similar for his book “The Empty Raincoat” but later decided it was too fanciful.  The fried egg model requires there to be enough “thinking space” between “the demands or goal” and “the constraints” to provide an arena for productive creativity – “the choices”.  This is why it’s a fried egg and not a boiled one sliced through the middle!  Here is the fried egg I always carry in my bag alongside my computer as I’m sure we all do …

The Fried Egg Model - Demands, Constraints, Choices

The Fried Egg Model – Demands, Constraints, Choices

Andy Wooler offered me this excellent additional example of the use of constraints from the world of music via Arnold Schoenberg’s use of “Serialism”, of which one expression is the twelve-tone technique. We wouldn’t have the magnificent “Rite of Spring” without it. The technique requires that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are sounded as often as one another whilst preventing the emphasis of any one note. This constraint did not get in the way of exciting music and some thought it was a breath of fresh air. Of course, as it is music, not everyone agrees!

To finish, here’s that first guitar that taught me the value of constraints – I was hold it was a Hofner Futurama by the insurance salesman that sold it to me for £10.  It was heavily modified with “Brian May” Burns Trisonic pickups which were its crowning glory.  It taught me to be strong!  I eventually managed to buy another one for a similar price although his one was so bad in construction and playing that I had to take a saw to it.  It was 1977 after all – the year of punk!

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Guitar Book Collage

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Peter Cook leads Human Dynamics, offering better Organisation Development, Training and Coaching. He offers keynotes that blend World Class Leadership Thinking with the wisdom of the street via The Academy of Rock – where Business Meets Music. Author of seven books on Business Leadership, acclaimed by Tom Peters, Professors Charles Handy, Adrian Furnham and Harvey Goldsmith CBE. Connect with us on our Linkedin Company Page and join our group The Music of Business where we discuss parallel lessons from Business and Music.

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6 responses to “Welcome Constraints

  1. Another musical example would of course be serialism – starting with Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique. We wouldn’t have the magnificent “Rite of Spring” without it. The constraints of an order to the 12 tones of the chromatic scale didn’t get in the way of exciting music and indeed, was a breath of fresh air to many. (Not all like this approach of course!)

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  2. Another example that comes to mind – there is an element of constraint in writing a No.1 hit single. Whilst there are of course exceptions such as Bohemian Rhapsody, you have a time restriction, the need to have a powerful hook and have a mass audience in mind. The musical value can be zero (plenty of example of that!) and with autotune, you don’t even need to be able to sing. For example, part of Boney M’s success was having the dancing guy (Bobby Farrell) as part of the band – yet it wasn’t him you heard, it was the producer, Frank Farian unless you saw them live. Frank was also behind the Milli Vanili saga. So perhaps another constraint, and this is even more so today where the music video is a huge part of a successful chart hit, is the visual aspect of the band. Kylie’s “Cant get you out of my head” had a great hook and she certainly had the visual aspect sorted! (and of course, you need a great songwriter – Rob Davis, formerly of Mud & Darts co-wrote that hit).

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  3. Lovely post Peter, endorsed all the way.

    As you well know, most of my preferred ‘Creativity Techniques’ involve assumption surfacing in some form. Such questioning is *always* useful on the basis that one or other of two things ensues. Either the assumption is revealed as ‘robust’ (for now, at least, so file under ‘probably correct’), or it proves ‘incorrect’ (aka unhelpful, to the point of becoming a self-limiting belief, in which case entire new avenues open up as viable ways forward).

    So constraints (and their testing to discover whether they are indeed real or imaginary) are not just helpful, but arguably crucial in the creative process.

    PS listened to another Radio4 programme whilst driving this morning in which creativity was presented as almost the sole province of The Arts; does anybody else get their buttons pressed by the term ‘Creative Industries’?

    PPS Rite of Spring remains one of my favourite pieces. For all its stridencies and dissonances – it really was a breath of fresh air – it’s still Igor Stravinsky.

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