Creative Constraints: How to Use Them and When to Lose Them


In our last article, Mark demonstrated why thinking INSIDE the box is actually good for creativity. In other words, imposing constraints on your thinking or a project can result in better and faster ideas and innovation.

As existing and aspiring entrepreneurs, we already face real barriers to achieving our goals. The idea is to embrace these constraints as positives that kick creativity into gear and result in smart solutions.

On the other hand, we often impose constraints on ourselves that are pure fiction. We accept certain symbolic boundaries as true barriers, when they’re not real and actually brittle… just waiting to be busted through.

Take elephants for example. As babies, elephants are kept in place chained by the leg to a strong iron stake. When older and stronger, elephants can be constrained by a simple rope and wooden stake, even though it couldn’t possibly stop them.

Because they believe it will stop them.

Use Constraints:


An entrepreneur with a great idea often has no cash… and that’s a good thing. Rather than spending time thinking of how to find investors, start thinking of ways to bootstrap the entire operation.

People often think they need to spend money to attract attention. But with the Internet in general and social media in particular, throwing money at getting attention may mean your idea isn’t all that good. Get creative to spread the word, and people will help you if you’re on to something.

Other times, you need funds to develop a product. But you can find creative ways to partner with the talent you need, or turn your idea on its head and bootstrap it. Say you’ve got a great idea for productivity software. Create a digital information product or training course on the topic first to fund development (you’re also creating a fan base of prospects and customers as you go).


Time-based constraints can either be real or the product of our own ambition and imagination. But like a lack of money, a compressed time period can help you get ultra-creative and super-productive at the same time.

Time constraints allow you to avoid the trap of perfectionism. Good enough is better than never done. Plus, in areas ranging from software to paid content to even art, the ready-fire-aim approach to iterative development works.

Another benefit of speed is one we don’t like to think about—you can fail faster. Failure is crucial to innovation, and the less time you spend on the wrong idea is more time to move to the right one. Plus, you won’t release junk just because you’ve invested way too much of your life to let go.

Market Realities

Sometimes we want to do something that’s just not possible due to the realities of a particular market. Say you have an idea for a great feature for a mass market website, but it only works in the Firefox browser. Given that the mass market still largely embraces Internet Explorer, you’d be shooting yourself in the virtual foot.

But market realities can create powerhouse ideas with observation and a shift in perspective. Here’s an example.

The market norm for paid software has been feature overload, with each new release jam packed with new power. The market reality to the keen observer was that most people didn’t use much beyond core functions and the feature-bloat went unlearned. 37 Signals created a market and a movement around “less is better” in constrained software development and use.

Lose Restraints:


Imagine you’re looking down on the earth from the International Space Station. You don’t see the boundary lines of nations, which in turn lead to a variety of customs and immigration laws, governmental and economic philosophies, criminal edicts, civil legal systems, mores and cultural norms.

You don’t see the lines because they don’t exist outside our minds and on paper—and neither does any of that other stuff. Traditions, institutional rules, industry standards, marketing “best” practices… all consensual hallucinations.

Now, breaking many of these imaginary rules will get you in real trouble. Breaking others will make you successful beyond your wildest dreams.


Institutional constraints come into being due to consensus among groups of people about how things should work. The most insidious constraint, however, is self-imposed.

Being afraid of change and failure is perfectly natural. It’s also a primal subconscious force that must be mastered or ignored.

Often, we let others reinforce our internal fears due to societal shame, disapproval, or ridicule. All I can advise is to revisit Tyler Durden’s first 2 Rules of Innovation.


Even if you have a war chest of advertising loot, you’d still be ignored if you followed standard practices. Most “me-too” marketing ignores basic human psychology by focusing on the features of the product or pure entertainment instead of the benefits to the buyer.

But that’s just the beginning. We tune out everything we can, especially the conventional.

Come up with a better story, a more powerful metaphor or analogy, or a novel focus on your market’s needs (shedding communication constraints works great with spotting market realities) . Often the best use of your creativity is positioning yourself differently from the “me-to” crowd, even if what you offer is similar.

Entrepreneurs Epitomize Creativity

If I’d listened to customers, I’d have given them a faster horse. ~Henry Ford

All entrepreneurs satisfy a market desire. Innovation happens when you help people desire something they didn’t know or think they wanted.

That can happen with a revolutionary new product or service. Or, it can happen through a smarter way of describing something that already exists.

All you have to do is use and lose your constraints wisely.

About the Author: Brian Clark is a new media entrepreneur and co-founder of Lateral Action. Subscribe today to get free updates by email or RSS.

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Responses to this Post


  1. I figure most institutions exist specifically to create safeguards for time, money, and market realities. So how do we recognize when the institution has become part of the problem?

  2. I like the elephant analogy.

    It seems we are all held back by constraints put on us by the world we live in.

    It has always been those that break those constraints (Einstein, Isaac Newton, etc) that tend to succeed.

  3. Fear is the most insidious and powerful constraint of all. Trying to start or run your business while under its influence is what leads to “me too” marketing.

    When you’re unclear about what makes you different from the crowd, it’s almost impossible to see what makes your products and services different.

    And when you can’t see this uniqueness, you fall into the trap of fear-based “me too” marketing.

    Awareness of the unique–and uniquely beneficial–aspects of yourself allows you to tap into a root level of self-confidence which in turn, engenders confidence in your products and services.

    “Innovation happens when you help people desire something they didn’t know or think they wanted.”

    You (and Henry) are so on the money. This should become the mantra of both aspiring and established entrepreneurs.

    Thanks for this, Brian. 🙂

  4. I love the reference to the elephant. That segment has gone straight into my swipe file.

  5. That elephant thing has always made me so sad. Poor lovely things.

  6. Brian:

    Your take has awoken a sleeping giant. I am in the process of a start-up venture, with no working capital, and no assistance. Everything is on my shoulders. Talk about fear! My greatest fear is that my site will never be finished. I keep tinkering and tinkering and find that I’ve fallen victim to my unrelenting standard of perfectionism. This post couldn’t have been more timely. I will use your advice wholeheartedly. Thanks a bunch.

  7. The constraint of money did really give me some new insights, seems to be an entrepreneurs greatest challenge. Like you said, the internet is really helping out these days trying to put every one on the same pedestal.

  8. Good analogy with the elephant – couldn’t have delivered your point faster or better, I think. Never thought about the time/money/etc constraints either. Hmm…

  9. This is great, because a comment on Lateral Action prompted me to write a piece on why time, money and other constraints can be a positive thing for business. I posted it here: Now you guys have come full circle and posted an awesome article about how these concepts apply to business. It’s true: ample financial resources can actually be an IMPEDIMENT to success, while constraints like fear need to be let loose as soon as possible. It’s good to say this stuff as much as possible, because our economic climate has tightened financial resources for most of us AND incited fear. A bad combination, especially when the FACTS are that there is just as much opportunity, if not more, to build wealth and have success than there has ever been.

  10. This discussion reminds me of the movies in the 30s/40s and 50s where screenwriters and directors had to be both wise and clever in getting around the censorship rules. In some respects, the constraints forced their best, most creative work because they couldn’t be direct or obvous in the their approach.