#282 from Innovative Leader Volume 6, Number 6          June 1997

Managing Constraints for Maximum Creativity in Product Development
by Matthew I. Isaak, Ph.D.

Dr. Isaak is professor of psychology at Rice University, Houston, Texas. 

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

Put simply, 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 process.

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 unconstrained.

How might 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. 

Develop a complete a description as possible of the need to be filled, the problem to be solved or the possibility to be opened.

While knowing 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 number?  Subjecting 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.

Finally, 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. 

Think 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 products.

Design Generation

Once developers 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.

When design 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 wings.  The 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. 

Theresa Amabile 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.

Turning to 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. 

Consciously 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.

Design Analysis

Remember the 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 needed.

Check design candidates rigorously against all the constraints developed at the outset.  Think carefully about analogies that might underlie the designs.

Increase the chances that your work is creative by consciously managing design constraints.  Before 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.

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