Organizational Constraints: Obstacles or Opportunities?

One might think that constraints — whether they be rules and regulations, tight deadlines, or simply a lack of resources — can only stifle creativity within an organization. However, perhaps counterintuitively, research has shown the opposite: when established correctly, constraints can in fact increase innovation amongst employees, thus helping organizations sustain a competitive advantage across fields of strategic management, organizational behavior, marketing, and more.   

As with many things, the dose makes the poison; too many or too few restraints can have equally harmful effects. When all constraints are removed, productivity is replaced with complacency. Often people will begin to take what psychologists have termed the path-of-least-resistance, meaning they select ideas that come to mind more easily rather than more novel ideas that are indeed better, but simply take more time and resources to come up with and implement successfully. On the other hand, when constraints become too stringent, they can end up stifling creativity and innovation by discouraging risk-taking and experimentation, and reducing feelings of autonomy. So, what is the proper amount of constraints? 

To find out, managers need to apply different constraint types simultaneously, essentially conducting miniature experiments within their organization to identify the optimal combination of a tailored constraint structure that works best for their employees. This can entail toying with the amount of discretion employees have over work decisions, schedules, and methods; adjusting the availability of resources such as human capital, funds, and equipment materials; or establishing ground rules or routines for meetings and brainstorming sessions that are designed to aid decision making and work processing. Indeed, recent studies have found that even the mental act of thinking in terms of hypothetical scarce versus abundant resources — while keeping the actual amount of resources constant — can enhance creativity by reducing cognitive fixation, or the tendency to fixate on a well-known solution.

With a moderate level of constraints, tasks can be reframed as a challenge. In turn, this is what helps motivate experimentation and risk-taking and encourages an employee mindset that is able to maximize available resources and think beyond traditional solutions. To compound this, organizations that have work cultures that promote creativity and innovation tend to have better success, as employees will feel supported in creative endeavors and will tend to view constraints in a more positive light. All in all, constraints are not to be avoided, but rather strategically utilized by managers to enhance employee creativity, innovation, and work satisfaction. The act of intentionally restricting time, funds, or other assets is already evident in countless organizations, including newer companies following the lean start-up model and larger companies such as Innocentive, Apple, and Google. Established methods of developing a minimum viable product or having daily meetings are practices that align with the constraints framework. More studies are certainly needed to assess how the flexibility of constraint influences intrinsic motivation and creative cognition, as well as how the timing of constraint implementation can affect the final outcome of the innovation process. Nonetheless, current research supports the plethora of creative benefits that come with successful implementation of a moderate amount of constraints.

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