by Leon Rosenshein

Constraints and Creativity

A puzzle is a problem we usually cannot solve because we make an incorrect assumption or self-imposed constraint that precludes a solution

“Creativity is the ability to identify self-imposed constraints, remove them, and explore the consequences of their removal.”

    -- Russell Ackoff

Speaking of systems and systems thinking, what you don’t think about is just as important as what you do think about. Sometimes more so. Our experience puts lots of constraints on our thinking and in most cases it makes things simpler. Sometimes though, what you know can hurt you.

It’s called the Einstellung effect. In the classic water jug experiment people were asked to get a set amount of water using 3 different sized jugs. The way the problems are presented a consistent pattern appears in the first set then in later problems there’s a more efficient way, but most people stick with the pattern. It’s not wrong, but it’s not the best answer.

Another place you might run into it is the XY Problem. You have a problem you want to solve and start down a solution. You know almost everything you need and are pretty sure your solution will work. You get most of the way there, but run into an issue. Now you’ve got a new problem, so you ask for help with that. Solving that problem might be the right answer, but very often I get to ask my favorite question, “What are you really trying to do?” and that leads to a better solution to the original problem.

Being aware of the einstellung effect is nice, but awareness isn’t a solution. Avoiding it takes work. Work to notice that it’s happening and work to do something different.

Sometimes it’s easy to notice. If you’re having trouble finding a solution to a problem that seems like it should be straightforward, that's a good sign. Another is when you get stuck implementing a solution on something that doesn’t seem to be connected to the real problem. The most subtle though, and the one to be most alert for, is patterning. If you’re applying the same solution to all of your problems that might be a sign you’re stuck.

Once you realize that you might be stuck, there are things you can do to break the cycle. The first is to simply step back. Take a break from that problem and do something else that lets your mind handle things in the background. Take a walk. Take a shower. Anything but pound your head against the same spot on the wall again.

A different option is to do something to break the pattern. Maybe brainstorming. Maybe think about all the weird Rube Goldberg ways you might solve the problem. How would you do it brute force? How would you do it in a completely different environment? What if you needed to solve the problem without whatever tool you’re currently thinking about using?

Finally, you can check your assumptions. What previous problems is the current one like? How is this problem different from all others? What are you assuming about the problem space? The solution space? The available options? Did someone tell you how you need to solve the problem or were they just offering a suggestion?

Bottom line. Removing self-imposed constraints won’t solve the problem, but it will open up new possibilities for you.