#282 from Innovative
Leader Volume 6, Number 6
Constraints for Maximum Creativity in Product Development
Isaak is professor of psychology at Rice University, Houston,
Necessity is the
mother of invention. Some
of necessity’s children, however, are more creative—more
original, more ground breaking—than others.
Why are some new products bold and fresh, and some
uninspired? What can
product development teams and their leaders do to increase the
chances that their work is new and different?
The creativity of
a product development team’s work depends, at least in part, on
how constraints are handled during each of the three phases of
product development cycle: design
limitation, design formulation and design analysis.
Let’s look more closely at these phases and explore how
to manage constraints in each phase to ensure that the resulting
product is as creative as possible.
design limitation involves getting a handle on the problem.
The inventor or product development team identifies the
problem and sketches the general range of possible solutions.
Imposing constraints on the intended product during this
phase can help specify what the product might look like and how it
might function. This
means that developers won’t have to consider as many potential
designs for the product, thereby speeding up the invention
Ronald Finke at
Texas A&M University has shown that inventions are more
creative when people constrain or limit the range of product
ideas. In one study,
people were shown a number of object parts, like handles and
wheels. They had to
combine three of the parts to invent a practical object or device.
The device could belong to any of eight categories, like furniture,
weapons, and so on. When
they were told which category their device had to belong to, their
inventions were more creative than when the category was left
developers constrain the design of a product?
Most products are developed to fill needs, solve problems
or open possibilities. Take
airplanes: they were
invented to allow people to fly.
A precise, well-thought-out statement of the need or
problem can go a long way toward limiting the kinds of designs
that developers consider. Suggesting
that people can’t fly because their bodies can’t provide the
needed lift and thrust guides inventors to find ways to
artificially provide lift and thrust to people.
Simply stating that people can’t fly but they would like
to, however, offers little guidance in the search for the design
of a flying device.
a complete a description as possible of the need to be filled, the
problem to be solved or the possibility to be opened.
that one has to dream up designs to provide lift and thrust is
certainly better than knowing that one has to come up with designs
to help people fly, there may still be many designs to consider.
Lift and thrust can be provided with wings that flap, wings
that don’t flap or even, someday, with no wings at all—if
people wear rocket-propelled jet packs.
How can product
developers reduce the number of potential designs to a manageable
one’s product ideas to additional constraints may help.
Try looking at the shortcomings of a product’s precursor
for constraints. One
problem with my clock is that I have long since grown used to its
alarm, allowing me to turn it off in my sleep.
Were I to buy a new clock, I would quickly become
accustomed to its alarm as well. Wouldn’t it be harder to ignore a clock with a variety of
alarm tones than one whose alarm is always the same?
This idea might lead to designing a clock which contains
thirty preprogrammed random alarm tones.
technological and economic limitation may be added to the design
constraints suggested by the problem itself and by the drawbacks
of previous products. For
example, giving people lift and thrust via wingless jet-packs
probably won’t work given available technology.
of as many applicable constraints on the product as possible
before getting down to the business of actually coming up with
potential designs. Tightly
constraining the product at the outset may not only speed up the
development cycle, but it may also result in more creative
have zeroed in on the problem and considered constraints the
product must satisfy, it’s time to really get to work and come
up with potential product designs.
Whereas limiting the range of potential product designs
entails imposing constraints, actually generating new and creative
designs often involves letting go of and rethinking constraints.
generation begins, developers often constrain the form of a new
product by making implicit analogies to existing products or
natural phenomena whose function is similar to that of the new
product. For example, early airplane inventors often imitated the form
of birds, bats and even insects.
Drawing an analogy between airplanes and birds led
inventors to try to provide both the lift and thrust functions in
airplane-bird analogy also suggests that lift should be
accomplished by the flapping of the wings.
Early flying craft with flapping wings failed miserably.
Clearly, patterning flying devices directly on birds would
not help people take to the sky.
The failure of
initial product designs may stymie product development efforts.
The creative impasse may be broken, though, if developers
consciously attempt to discover and call into question what
they’ve unwittingly imposed on the product’s design.
Developers can then go ahead and think of designs that may
be less prone to failure.
The flow of new
design ideas may be spurred both by general attitudes and by
specific strategies. A
permissive or tolerant view of design ideas is critical during
their generation. As
many designs as possible should be produced at this point, and
product developers should neither worry about whether the designs
are plausible, nor fear the evaluation of their designs by others.
of Harvard compared two groups of college students who were
writing poems. One
group expected to be evaluated on their work; the other didn’t.
Students who thought their poems would be scrutinized were
less creative than the others.
They evaluated their own ideas more stringently, causing
them to toss out the riskier—but more original—ones.
specific strategies, making analogies and combining very
different—even opposite—ideas and experiences are two ways to
turn on the flow of creative ideas.
If using birds for inspiration in designing flying craft
doesn’t work, use some other naturally flying object for ideas.
examine and relax implicit constraints on designs, consider
alternative design analogies, and to try to combine different or
contradictory design ideas. A
relaxed atmosphere free of judgment and criticism should prevail.
constraints that product developers used to limit the range of
potential designs? Those
constraints come in handy once a set of designs have been
generated. Design analysis involves evaluating how well the designs
stack up with respect to those constraints.
Can we produce an alarm clock with a variety of
preprogrammed sounds at a price people would be willing to pay?
How much longer does it really take people to get used to a
random sequence of, say, eight tones than to get accustomed to a
single tone? Often,
product developers have to return to the drawing board, as when
flapping-wing craft failed to provide both lift and thrust.
Whereas a lax
attitude to implausibility or error is beneficial during design
generation, it is better during design analysis to take a
hard-nosed approach to error.
Such a stringent attitude ensures that designs are not only
original, but also valuable:
they really do meet the specifications they’re supposed
to. In one study,
three groups were taught different ways to come up with creative
story titles. One
group was simply instructed to produce as many different titles as
they could. Another
group was told to evaluate their titles carefully, but was not
told to think of as many titles as possible.
Finally, a third group was given both instructions:
they had to dream up as many titles as they could, then
carefully analyze the titles.
This group produced the best titles.
Creativity requires both unconstrained production of ideas
and, later on, the rigorous criticism of those ideas.
I suggested that
one way to come up with designs is to make analogies to existing
products or natural phenomena.
Analyzing designs often entails thinking carefully about
those analogies. Think
back to the bird-plane analogy.
Birds tilt their wings slightly to maintain lateral
control. Taking their
cue, the Wright brothers designed planes whose wing tips could be
raised or lowered by a system of wires.
Unfortunately, the wires added too much weight to the
plane. How else could
wings provide lateral control? The Wright brothers then devised planes whose wing tips were
warped slightly. The
problem then was that the degree of lateral control couldn’t be
well controlled. Today’s
planes use small wing flaps that can be raised or lowered as
design candidates rigorously against all the constraints developed
at the outset. Think carefully about analogies that might underlie the
chances that your work is creative by consciously managing design
designs are generated, limit the range of possible designs by
enumerating the constraints.
Then, when you are generating designs, relax constraints.
Finally, when designs are being analyzed and tested, go
back to the constraints listed earlier and make sure the designs
satisfy each one.