Why creativity thrives during times of constraint

“Pivot” and “agility” have entered our everyday vocabulary, and, while many businesses have suffered, those that have survived and even prospered are the ones that have seized the opportunity to innovate.

Conventional wisdom says that constraints are a barrier to creativity. Now we are learning the opposite may be true.

At a glance

  • Amid the pandemic-driven difficulties levelled at businesses, the organisations that have survived and succeeded are those that have seized the opportunity to innovate.
  • Being creative extends beyond typically artistic spheres, to solving practical problems by finding new ways to use scarce resources.
  • The restrictions put on businesses this year have gone a long way to proving that, rather than curbing innovation, constraints and scarcity have boosted our capacity to be resourceful and creative.

By Megan Breen

There is nothing like a global pandemic and ensuing economic crisis to spur all sorts of businesses to creative heights usually only seen in innovation labs and controlled environments.

“Pivot” and “agility” have entered our everyday vocabulary, and, while many businesses have suffered, those that have survived and even prospered are the ones that have seized the opportunity to innovate.

How can businesses learn from the current environment and keep the momentum going into the long term? What techniques should we embrace, and what conventional wisdom should we discard?

Make it happen

Creativity is often associated with works of art, but research shows the term applies equally to solving practical problems through new applications of resources.

This interpretation of creativity helps explain the behaviour adopted by businesses in times of crisis, and should be celebrated and encouraged, says workplace creativity specialist and author Mykel Dixon.

“One major misconception about creativity is that it needs freedom to survive – that we need a blank page to let our imaginations run wild. While that is true, research tells us that creativity also thrives in constraint.

"I think that the least innovative workplaces are simply paralysed and just trying to keep their heads above water - they're not actually recognising that now is the absolute best time for innovation." Dr Amantha Imber, Inventium

“When we’re in a workplace that seems to suppress innovative ideas, or we’re given a project where our budgets have been cut, that can be fertile ground for thinking creatively. Those constraints can be a catalyst for activating and harnessing new and better ideas,” he says.

Dixon adds that workplaces that encourage creative thinking manage better in times of crisis, and the current environment is demonstrating how important it is to embed creativity into workplace culture. 

Dr Amantha Imber.“When looking at a problem or project, limiting your choices can be incredibly effective in reaching a breakthrough. Ask yourself, ‘What would it be like if we could only charge half for this product?’, or, ‘What would we do if we had to deliver this project by tomorrow, not next quarter?’ You can train yourself to think differently by leveraging the power of constraint,” Dixon says.

Asking these kinds of questions, looking at the new problems being thrown up for businesses and catering to the needs of customers and clients makes good business sense, agrees organisational psychologist Dr Amantha Imber, from behavioural science consultancy Inventium.

“The smartest organisations are really getting close to their customers and understanding what the problems are that need solving now, that are different to how things were pre-COVID-19.

“The more you can understand that as a business, the less risky innovation becomes, because if you can create a solution that solves a new set of problems for your customers, then that’s something that they’re going to value and most probably pay money for,” Imber says.

Team effort

Another example of creativity at work is the many ways in which organisations have adapted to make sure staff are involved in the creation of ideas, which benefits the sustainability of the business and contributes to productivity.

Now is the time to try new techniques to keep your workforce focused, says Imber, adding that those who don’t do so face an even more uncertain future.

“The most innovative workplaces are making sure their employees are exposed to other parts of the business and contributing to how to adapt. I think that the least innovative workplaces are simply paralysed and just trying to keep their heads above water – they’re not actually recognising that now is the absolute best time for innovation,” Imber says.

This includes helping people adapt to working from home. It’s not just about making sure everyone has internet access, says Imber – people need to be taught to build their “productivity muscles”.

“The most progressive workplaces are investing time and resources in training people how to work from home productively, so that they really thrive from home, as opposed to being constantly distracted by wanting to put another load of washing on,” she says.

Harnessing the momentum

Walking the dog on their daily team catch-up, dressing only the top half of themselves for a video team meeting, staggering start and finish times, and giving staff an hour off each day to focus on non-work-related projects are just some of the examples of how employees and businesses are adapting to our new environment.

The future is wide open, says Aaron McEwan, vice president of research and advisory at Gartner, and reimagining how we connect and collaborate going forward is crucial.

“I think one of the things that organisations will need to do is rethink their physical space and ask, ‘How do we create spaces that are more conducive to the connections, the collaboration and the innovative thinking that we need our people to do without being in the same room?’

“The world is your oyster in terms of how you want to reimagine that. There’s been this long-held assumption that innovation and creative thinking comes from collaboration, which they do. But if your innovation strategy is reliant upon serendipity that people will somehow bump into each other in the office, that’s not a strategy. That’s just hope,” McEwan says.

"What employees will be looking for now is which businesses embraced this moment and used it as a way to humanise their work, versus those that are trying as hard as they can to get back to what was before." Aaron McEwan, Gartner

Workplaces giving employees time to be creative before jumping onto a series of video calls is also a key to success, McEwan says.

“This is a generalisation, but roughly 80 per cent of people have a circadian rhythm where early morning is the best time to do work that requires concentration and creativity and lateral thinking,” he adds.

Being transparent about how your business has made it through this period of uncertainty is also going to influence future business success, McEwan says.

“What employees will be looking for now is which businesses embraced this moment and used it as a way to humanise their work, versus those that are trying as hard as they can to get back to what was before.

“Allowing employees to design their work a little bit more around their natural rhythms, that positions them to be at their best, will be a big factor in where people choose to work in the future,” McEwan says.

Creativity strategies

Rachel Clements is co-founder and national director of psychological services and principal organisational psychologist at the Centre for Corporate Health. She works with clients to develop wellbeing strategies for employees, and she says acknowledging that there are a series of wellbeing phases that people go through in times of disruption is important.

“The very first wellbeing phase people went through was one of fear and anxiety – leading to high-stress reactions. People were really operating in their fight or flight response, which allowed us to make quick pivots in our personal life and in our work life. We had to adjust very, very quickly to having our world turned upside down,” she says.

This led to the quick implementation of new ways of working, and businesses that understand the next stage – the “languishing” phase, where motivation drops before picking up again and people begin to feel optimistic again – will be the ones that survive and prosper.

“We will be in this state of disruption for a while, and we need to pace ourselves along the journey and realise that our brain is not always going to be in top gear. If we don’t find some good strategies to motivate ourselves through that, we can end up with decreased productivity issues, decreased performance issues and, ultimately, low mood and depression,” Clements says.

Helpful strategies to achieve positive wellbeing for employees include making sure people have access to mindfulness activities, such as breathing techniques, providing time for exercise, encouraging team building activities and ways for people to share ideas, says Clements.

“You’ve only got to show a little bit of vulnerability to say, ‘Hey, we need you guys to help us at this time’. Often your team will have the answers, if you let them be involved.”

As restrictions ease and people move around more freely, taking some of the techniques used during the initial stages of the lockdown will help your business, says Clements.

“We had our whole business literally turned upside down within a week, and I think we’ve never been so creative in our lives. We developed more products in about the last two months than what we usually do in a year.

“Although the pace has changed now and settled down a bit more to a business as usual, we’ve tried to still have those weekly creative hubs, and are embedding that as a regular part of our business,” Clements says.

Read next: How businesses can pivot to embrace the new normal


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