Inside The Box

Inside The Box

Embracing constraints breeds creativity

Andrew Davis, best-selling author and keynote speaker

Andrew Davis is a best-selling author and keynote speaker. He’s built and sold a digital marketing agency, produced for NBC and worked for The Muppets. Today, Andrew Davis teaches business leaders how to grow their businesses, transform their cities, and leave their legacy. At the American Marketing Association’s Higher Ed Symposium in Washington D.C., Andrew presented a concept called “The Cube of Creativity” that inspires a new way to make decisions within your institution. We asked him to share some insights with the EnvisionED readers:

What is the difference between successful and unsuccessful institutions when facing the exact same disruptive forces?
The successful organizations are able to embrace the situation very quickly, establish constraints, assess their resources, and define a clear outcome. They tend to come up with a solution that may work, and then move rapidly towards it. So the main difference boils down to the willingness and speed with which they embrace constraints. 

How do constraints breed creativity?
Charles Eames said, “Creativity is the sum of all the constraints.” Out-of-the-box thinking does not work because all it gives you is a bunch of ideas that nobody ever has the time, energy, resources or clarity to actually pursue. The concept of getting “out of the box” may create lots of ideas, but they’re not ones you have the budget or time to invest in. When you embrace all of your specific constraints—resource constraints, time constraints, budget constraints, and creative constraints—you can be very creative. I think constraints breed creativity by flipping all the obstacles into opportunities for solutions that work for you. 

Can you share the basic concept of the Cube of Creativity?
The Cube of Creativity has four simple constraints you can add to any initiative or project that can help you come up with better solutions faster. And those solutions often deliver outsized results. The Cube of Creativity is designed to help you think “inside the box,” with each side of the cube representing one of the constraints you need to add. 

What are the four sides and what role do they play?
The first one is “Eliminating the unnecessary.” Every time you take on a new initiative, you have to kill two other initiatives. You need to kill an easy initiative and a hard one. An easy one is the one that you probably aren’t really doing, but you say you’re gonna do or you’re thinking about doing, or you started at one point but you never followed through.  And the hard one is the one where you’ve got resources committed, but it’s just not working out. And you need to say, “I’m not doing this any longer. We’re killing that initiative.” Eliminating the unnecessary frees up your creative energy so that you can apply it to the new project. 

The next side is “Defining a clear outcome.” The key here is you have to ask yourself what single outcome defines success for this project or initiative? And most often we’re not very good at this. We attach too many potential outcomes to projects. For example, you may want your marketing to raise awareness, add leads, or increase revenue. However, that is too many things and your team gets confused on what you are trying to achieve. Defining a project’s success should be very simple and have a single clear outcome. 

The third one is to “Limit the options.” The critical piece to this is to implement unreasonable limitations in order to spark creativity. For example, if you wanted 10 new testimonials in the next 24 hours, that sounds fairly unreasonable. But, the outcome is clear and the unreasonable timeframe would force action.

In addition, you want to further limit the options by adding creative limitations. That might be something like mandating that each testimonial is recorded and edited only on a phone. As a result, you eliminate excuses and time drains like researching recording technology, and you accelerate execution. 

Finally, the last constraint is to “Raise the stakes.” We need to be very clear for ourselves and our team what’s at stake if we do not achieve success. It might be as direct as letting staff know that the school may have huge cuts and have to lay off staff if we don’t get this done. The bottom line is that we must always clearly articulate to our team what’s at stake.

What do you suggest as the first step to embracing the constraints?
You must begin by eliminating the unnecessary so you don’t have time to take on anything new. If you aren’t killing two projects every time, this is a very hard one. I struggle with this one myself, but the more clear you get about what you’re gonna stop doing, the more effective you’ll be with the other stages in the four steps.