Icicle propagation on a building facade in Pittsburgh: Living with constraints

A few months back I posted a quote from the artist Carroll Dunham that has a great deal of meaning for me:

The most basic thing to say about painting: it’s a limiting condition within which absolutely anything goes. But it’s a negative premise. It’s not, “I like painting because it’s so wonderful—it can do all these wonderful things.” It’s more, “I like painting because it’s so limited, it’s so uptight, so old and so flat and so rectilinear.” Within that, you’re good to go.

Recently I have been reading a lot about innovation, from breakthroughs in open innovation to high yield collaborations. Although a lot of my reading has focused on how innovation plays out in corporate settings (it is all of interest to me regardless of the context), the parallels to my personal experience are still relevant.

For example, this passage is from Jeffrey Philips on the blog, Innovate on Purpose:

What happens in with a tight brief, or a well communicated set of criteria, is that the team is then liberated to innovation within those criteria, or to achieve something incredibly new and different within that criteria. Since we all need a villain to slay or some fixed point to pivot from, having some fixed criteria or goals mean that we can then assume those goals are fixed and find all manner of outrageous ways to satisfy those criteria or goals. That’s when the really interesting ideas start flowing. Good ideas then lead to a decision making process based on the established criteria or constraints. This is a two-fer. You get better idea generation, better engagement and a team that can more easily choose the best ideas, since the constraints were clearly identified.

If you want a team to really excel at idea generation, set a big problem or goal for them, define the strategic opportunities and establish some key constraints. Then, allow them all the degrees of freedom possible outside of the constraints, and wait for the great ideas to come.

The role of constraints—be they within the confines of painting or within a team setting—continues to fascinate me. Given my personality proclivities that chafe at the very thought of limits (in that oft-circulated challenge to describe yourself in just six words, mine was “Don’t tell me what to do”), I have never tired of the limits that painting imposes on visual expression. Although Dunham is being both truthful and tongue in cheek in his comment above, I have never flinched from staying right there in the middle of that “limiting condition within which absolutely anything goes.”

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