Creativity is flight in restriction.
– Francis Hodge, Play Directing: Analysis, Communication, and Style
Systems thinking – defined as the ability to think well through cause and effect – entails understanding context. Great innovation is great in large part because of context. Context separates invention from innovation. Context is like the frame in art. If the canvas doesn’t fit the frame, the whole thing doesn’t quite work.
We’re constantly being told to think outside the box. Subsequently, it’s become an impotent platitude. Which is okay, because most people in big organizations probably don’t even have a clue what the box is. So you can’t think outside it even if you wanted to.
The box is context, the system. And you have two choices: make your idea fit inside the box, or build a brand new box to replace the old one. Some people call that disruptive, or destructive. Of course it is. So what? Creation is destruction. New replacing old is the way of the world. And if you don’t develop a new box for an idea that doesn’t fit in the old box, you’ve got nothing to put your great idea in. So it’ll float untethered in the ether as just another invention without application, until it gets anchored to context.
Great innovation seeks to find and fit the rhythm of change happening around us. It fits the innovator, fits the times, and fits within a larger system – like it’s always been there.
Leverage the limits. Restraining forces rule – resource constraints can spur ingenuity. All artists work within the confines of their chosen media, and it’s the limits that spur their creativity. The canvas edge, the marble block, the eight musical notes – the resources are finite. So it’s how you view and manage them that makes all the difference. And that’s the big question: Are limits preventing innovation, or enabling it? There’s only one right answer. Innovation demands exploiting limits, not ignoring them.
Think Inside the Box
In our culture today, everyone is told to think outside the box. Put aside the question of how much original thinking can be going on if everyone is rushing outside the box. The real question that arises when we hear this advice is, What’s wrong with the box?
It turns out that boxes – that is, limitations – can be incredible prompts to imagination. Limits beget inventiveness. Limits force open the imagination.
The architect David Rockwell noticed that his own children enjoyed playing more with the cardboard box that a new art table came in than with the table itself. The stunted, risk-averse plastic playgrounds of our era no longer capture the imagination of children. They’d rather just have a box. Rockwell began to conceive of a new kind of playground: unstructured, free, child-centered, and consisting almost entirely of raw ingredients. Loose parts made of wood and metal, sand, some water, multiple levels of platform and ground. “Playing with sticks,” Rockwell observes, “reminds us that in the best play there are no permanent artifacts.” There’s just some stuff, and imagination.
The critical factor is intention. Our lives are boxed in by limitations, material and attitudinal, that we inherit or create. It takes intentional practice to see those limitations not merely as something to tolerate but as the source of new invention. When we can convert scarcity into an asset, we are not just playing well. We are living well.
Imagination First: Unlocking the Power of Possibility