Interview: Dr. Caneel Joyce, on Placing Constraint on Creativity
Dr. Caneel Joyce works as a tutor and researcher in Organisational Behaviour, an interdisciplinary field that seeks to efficiently marshal workers and draw the best out of them. Currently working at the London School of Economics, she recently received her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.
Her research is potentially fascinating for anyone the creative industries, looking as it does at the optimum level of constraint to place on an individual or team to effect creativity and innovation. Bad Idea recently met her to discuss her work and methods, and what practical measures can be taken to constantly produce fresh and effective ideas.
Bad Idea: How did you come to start thinking about these ideas?
Caneel Joyce: Doing my PhD at Berkeley, you really got to pursue your own work – I could do whatever I wanted and be the champion of my own ideas.
But it was both a blessing and a curse. Because I had no structure, I really struggled with deciding which of my ideas were worth committing to. I struggled with that for three years. I was trying so many things I was sending mixed messages to people, and it was hard to manage myself. And I realised I was probably not alone – my mother was an artist, and I saw her trying to do too many things at one time and the negative effect that had.
So it was that that I wanted to say – I wanted to see what can be done to help creative people to make decisions.
BI: So how did you start putting together your thesis?
CJ: When I really figured things out was when I did a laboratory experiment. We knew from past experiments that having no choice is bad for creativity, and generally experiments gave people choice or no choice. But I said: “I bet you there’s stuff going on between those two extremes”.
BI: I understand you gave groups four different levels of constraint. How did each group react to their test conditions?
CJ: The teams that constrained themselves the least, when you actually analysed what they were talking about, were the most constrained, in their heads. They just hadn’t made explicit those constraints. They had all these implicit assumptions that were limiting them from seeing things that were right in front of their face. In a team setting, if you don’t make them explicit, you’ll have conflicts that you don’t understand. Untold assumptions lead to dramatically different interpretations of data, different ways of evaluating ideas. The teams that don’t make clear those assumptions were having the worst time.
If you’re 100% committed to making a specific and constrained idea like, say, an orange mug for toddlers, and then you go out and make a whole bunch of research, there’s a good chance that research is going to agree with you. So the higher constraint groups did really well, they ended up making the orange mug, but they had a hard time with data coming in – the more data that came in confirming their view, the more unified that group became, the more closed off. They didn’t learn that much.
The moderately constrained groups would talk about having two ideas on the table – mugs that were orange, and mugs for toddlers. And they would go out and they were very focused, and they would collect data that helped shed light on the validity of that idea. They were more open to being wrong, and the data was given meaning by the mild constraint.
What’s really interesting though, is if you look at intrinsic motivation – do I want to do this again, did I enjoy myself. All the research says that’s essential for creativity. But what I actually found is it just falls proportionally. The less choice people have, the less enjoyment people have and the less they want to do it again, even if they came up with a product the judges rated as being creative. People feel bad across the board as soon as you give them three choices instead of five.
BI: How are you translating these findings into the real world; what sorts of practical applications can you create?
CJ: If I’m doing a brainstorming session, I don’t get to ideas until at least halfway through – I spend the first fifteen minutes pulling out all of the assumptions, and putting them on the table. People don’t tend to share their real point of view if someone has already spoken, so before I get them all talking, I just get everyone to write down twenty words about the problem they’re trying to solve.
Then I get them to write twenty more, over two more minutes. They freak out – most business people think it takes a million years to come up with one idea, that you need to do tons of research. But they already know so much, they just don’t give themselves credit.
I get all their ideas, and see what’s common, and find the outliers. And then I say we’re not going to talk about this one anymore, because this other one you all really agree on, and we’ll commit to that. We can come back and revise this decision later, I tell them, and they say OK, as long as we can come back to it. But they never ask to come back! It’s tragic how much time we spend trying to decide on things.
I was working with a large hi-tech hardware company, and they wanted to devise a solution for reading, specifically how can we bring reading to teenagers. They came up with a bunch of ideas, like streaming through existing devices, or new hardware ideas, but they all decided bendiness was important. So we committed to only talking about bendiness. Then I opened it back up – we can talk about anything bendy, forget about reading, what can we do with a bendy digital device. But it’s constrained. I got them to go round really fast and hard in that space.
What our brains tend to do is find the easiest pathways to go down, the most familiar ideas, which are by definition the least creative. You have to be forced to examine all the ideas that are harder to get to, really thoroughly explore the area. The only way you can do that is to really limit what people can talk about.
You see these random TV shows that come out, and I think: I bet there’s a room with four hats in it, with a verb, noun, character and location, and they pull them out and write the show. You’d probably come up with a better idea with that than asking someone what’s really inspiring to them.
BI: But the problem is avoiding building in an innate conservatism from the original constraints. How do you keep everything fresh and creative?
CJ: Creativity is measured by multiplying novelty by usefulness. It has to be both. Usually we know our dimensions of usefulness – a mug is more useful is it is the right size, if it doesn’t have holes. If you know those already, to maintain creativity you can play with one of those dimensions – you can say I only care about this one, and I don’t care at all about the rest.
The other thing is trying to find a dimension that is completely independent – if we’re playing around with the concept of mugs, what’s an unrelated dimension? Politics. Can we design a Marxist mug? What would that be?
BI: Can you actually translate this thinking into real products?
CJ: Take the iPhone. They made a design decision that they were going to put the screen above all else, and that had implications for the rest of the phone. It meant you had to have a touch interface, and they limited it to one button. It was hard at first to get used to one button – I wanted at least a couple more. But not only was this the result of the designer’s constraint, that we’re going to play with the idea of the one-button phone, but it also forced me, the consumer, to learn a new way. And now all the developers are thinking what can we do with this lack of buttons.
And now that consumers are learning how to use the touch interface, if Apple releases a phone with multiple buttons, those buttons will be so much more useful. I wouldn’t put it past them to do it, because they’ve done it with a lot of other products – the interface on their computers used to be locked down, you had to learn how to do things the Apple way. And then they opened it up, and now I can add more keyboard shortcuts. Doing this after we learned the old way is so much more valuable; if you have all of those ideas on the table at the same time and try to do it, it’s not going to work.
BI: So what would you specifically recommend to, say, a new product design team who are having trouble coming up with new ideas?
CJ: The structure is anything you want, but using one constraint is the best way to do it. If you’re only constraining one thing, you’re not eliminating that much, you’re just pulling it into focus. A lot of time in the creative industries there’s a lot of hesitation about putting restrictions on people. There’s two things to learn – one is that limits are OK, and two is that the limits need to be so explicit they can be argued with.
BI: How do you deal with people who may be very experienced and brilliant, but are stuck in a rut?
CJ: For them, the really random constraints are the best ones – you really have to shake them up. You have to be absolutely rigid – I believe in being really strict about the constraints you have, and then being completely lenient about everything else.
One of the best bits with constraints is that they relieve people’s anxiety that there might be constraints working out there unidentified. It relieves the burden on that person having to constantly re-evaluate their ideas. If it’s hard enough to find one Marxist mug idea, you not going to be worried that “is this a really good Marxist mug idea?” – you’ll go with whatever you’ve got.
There’s three things you can do to make this work in a business. One is have you leaders give really clear directions about the specific things they want to constrain, and make it clear that outside of them, anything goes. The second one is that if you’re struggling in moving on with something, pick a really random constraint and see how far you can take it. Thirdly, in teams, as early as you can in the process, make sure everyone on the team has fully vetted all of their assumptions so the team can fully agree what it looks like.
BI: But how can you breed in satisfaction with a finished product? Surely the constraints end up leaving people with a lot of ‘what ifs’.
CJ: Barry Schwartz, in his book The Paradox of Choice, found that all of these negative things happen when you have too many choices – you become less decisive, you become more regretful about any path you didn’t take, you basically become less happy even though you had more choice.
What he suggests is an approach where you’re aiming to find something good enough – you make really clear what are the criteria you have, and as soon as you find something that hits all those, you’re going to stop looking. The deeper you dive into something, the more you exhaust it, the more possibilities there are. And going further down the path doesn’t always lead to wonderland. If you’re unsatisfied, it’s not good to evaluate what might have been, and keep going forward. Try something new.
BI: You mentioned brainstorming earlier, which is a classic means of trying to generate ideas. Are there other modifications we can make to it?
CJ: The research is clear – you’re going to come up with fewer ideas in a group brainstorming session than you would brainstorming on your own. But there are benefits to brainstorming that go beyond having more ideas, especially in a cross-functional setting where you have really diverse expertise coming together, you really need to be able to share that. And the way to share that is have experts come up with ideas on their own, and then bring them together, and then riff on each others’ ideas. Otherwise, whoever speaks first frames the whole thing, and limits it.
Somehow, you and I are going to find what we have in common and miss what we don’t, so we’re only going to talk about that stuff. So the more you have in a room, the less there is to talk about. So you have to force sharing of the most unique ideas.
BI: What about dealing with prejudiced or narrow-minded staff? Or those with a rivalry?
Generally my approach is to, if possible, get it out in the open and make light of it. If you know there’s a rivalry for instance, use that, pit them against each other. It might be a good thing. If they shut people up, that’s one thing, but if there’s competition, that can help.
When you have the sexist person, or the person who dominates the group and thinks only they have the good ideas, I think there’s always a risk they’ll shut other people up. That’s where I think as a manager you’d want to create more structured time for individual idea generation, and structure the idea sharing. I always really look to outliers – giving a chance to hear them always creates a richer understanding.
A horizontal power structure is definitely better. I have a couple of papers on speed-storming, which is brainstorming crossed with speed-dating. Every couple comes up with an idea at the end of the three minutes, and you’ve completely dispersed that hierarchy. You can have a lot of people in a room and come up with really interesting ideas if you have the combination of two types of expertise again and again and again. That can be done in ten minutes. If there’s too much of a power structure, it’s bad for creativity, and if it’s occurring organically which it often does, anything you can do to separate people and then pull them together, helps.
BI: Does it help to have different types of people on the same team, or does it lead to unnecessary friction?
CJ: I’d have different levels of need for closure – this is the need to reach a decision regardless of what the decision is. The more diverse teams are on the need for closure, the better the team functions. You have some people driving towards consensus, and driving towards convergence on one idea – they’re pushing forward to depth, so you can move forward and implement. But then you have the people who are resistant to closure, and they’ll force the team to re-examine. Having a mixture of them is ideal for innovation.
The ‘high need for closure’ people tend to dominate, because they’re afraid. The other ones are more relaxed. And add in the functional element – say you’re an accountant, you have a really high need for closure, whereas your marketing or design person will have a lower need. Often within an organisation, they get dominated. So it’s important to teach people that there’s a natural tendency to want to rush to a decision, and you have to constantly help each other resist that temptation. The teams that really internalise that lesson, that see that for someone who needs closure, the constraints are hugely comforting – they can pin something down, only talk about one thing, and the rest of the group can relax.
BI: Inevitably, each sphere of work attracts a certain kind of person, and can lead to a kind of monoculture. What can you do when a group of people working together isn’t diverse?
CJ: Educating people. I know that sounds cheesy, but so much pain can be saved with a few warnings and lessons. And if you can increase your ability to predict, that if I do this as a leader people are going to behave in this manner, you can make more money.
If there’s homogeneity, you have to ask: how is this going to be dangerous to us? How am I a liability to myself? You might all tend to read biology – you have to say OK, some of us have to read other stuff. To create innovation, sometimes you have to resist.