Innovation and scarcity

There is no shortage of ink being spilt on the connection between creativity and constraint, or innovation and scarcity. If sheer volume of consensus were the proof, then the case is closed – if you want to be cleverer, work with less, not more. (Of course, volume of practice or plaudits is not the same as proof of effectiveness – brainstorming has stayed popular despite being empirically discredited since 1959…)

Some of the connections are quite delightful, such as the story of the origin of The Cat in the Hat:

But there is no theory for constraints (not to be confused with the Theory OF Constraints by one Elliot Goldratt) revealed in most of the items, which restrict themselves to assuming its virtues…





And even with an extended essay on the empirical evidence for constraints, no theory comes from here:

The most useful insight came here:

“Creativity is often misunderstood. People often think of it in terms of artistic work — unbridled, unguided effort that leads to beautiful effect. If you look deeper, however, you’ll find that some of the most inspiring art forms — haikus, sonatas, religious paintings (DAJ: and I would add sonnets) — are fraught with constraints. They’re beautiful because creativity triumphed over the rules. Constraints shape and focus problems, and provide clear challenges to overcome as well as inspiration. Creativity, in fact, thrives best when constrained.”

And Kathy Sierra offered this theory of what goes on – although without some further evidence it sounds rather too much like the rules around brainstorming which have been soundly discredited:

“From the brain’s perspective, it makes sense that extreme speed can unlock creativity. When forced to come up with something under extreme time constraints, we’re forced to rely on the more intuitive, subconscious parts of our brain. The time pressure can help suppress the logical/rational/critical parts of your brain. It helps you EQ up subconscious creativity (so-called "right brain") and EQ down conscious thought ("left brain").”

37signals buys that hypothesis, but my caution stays strong. Sooooo many successes have been attributed to brainstorming – clearly there is a Hawthorne effect possible with these kinds of phenomena – ie we attribute the success to an available hypothesis, but not necessarily a valid one.

Some don’t extol constraints – they just say you better live with them –, or that you do better if you do live with them

As my mind cast around for larger social systems and the effects of constraints, I came to the function of the laws of Moses – the foundations of western law making. Perversely, I asked myself, were the 10 Commandments intended as constraints to fuel more creativity in disobedience? Or more creativity in living well because of accepting certain boundaries? Certainly the constraints of Orthodox Judaism – deuteronomic law on steroids – have resulted in some amazing innovations, such as the creation of the Eruv (

There are some insights from BIG architecture here if you want more convincing. Some of Bjarke Ingels constraint inversions are “beliefs in the opposite”, such as “sustainability increases the quality of life, it is not about settling for less…”. I really like this, and feel like it has some philosophical keys hidden in it: “saying yes to everyone results in bigger more interesting problems than saying no, no, no and pushing on”.

This issue of constraints seems philosophically expansive – the paradoxes in it seem to push out to our worldview. I invite you to see them that way – not to rush to small answers. Meditate about the great heroes of literature (Frodo Baggins) and religion (Christ). By saying “yes” to challenges, they took into themselves suffering, and in turn provided deliverance. Perhaps there are some keys there….


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