Both ancient history and modern times abound with examples of striking, innovative ideas that emerge when people’s customary behavior is severely constrained
The emergence of Covid-19 resulted in an almost unprecedented impact on the people of the world. The list of human activities that has been curtailed is a very long one, compelling responses ranging from outright cessation to avoidance to practical compromise. Whatever the impact, change has been enforced on much of how we live, on how we get things done.
A natural human reaction is that this cannot possibly be a good thing. It’s like having one arm tied behind your back. Complete freedom to utilize all of our faculties, without constraint, is self-evidently the sure path to progress is it not? If you need a good, practical idea for something, the common worldview is to throw off all shackles and allow your thinking the freedom to roam anywhere. This is widely assumed to be the most productive way to think innovatively.
Well, history begs to differ. Contrary to what we might think, innovative thinking is also unleashed when you deliberately limit your choices rather than opening up your mind to endless possibilities.
Sink The Boats
General Xiang Yu, who lived in China from 232BC to 202BC, was a brutal warlord whose victories in many battles won him power over large tracts of China. His penchant for constraining his thinking was no more evident than in the Battle of Julu (209BC) when he took on the Qin Dynasty. Being significantly out-numbered, victory was far from certain for Xiang Yu and his army. He required his troops to do whatever it took to win.
However, he did not conduct a brainstorming session to exhaust his military options. After crossing the Yangtze River, while his troops slept, Xiang Yu ordered their boats sunk. The next day he told his men that their choice was to fight to win quickly against overwhelming odds or die, without hope of escape. In the face of that immoveable constraint, Xiang Yu’s army won the battle.
What was going on here?
Unshackled Versus Shackled Thinking
While no one knows precisely how the brain formulates fresh, novel ideas — especially ones that have valuable application — there are many techniques that claim to provide the necessary stimulation so that the brain can do its mysterious work. One of the best-known and widely practised techniques is brainstorming, where a group of people work together to “brainstorm” lots of spontaneous ideas in an attempt to find a solution for a specific problem.
There are many other methods, systems, checklists, and frameworks in use. However, almost without exception, they have the same fundamental end in common: they seek to stimulate the brain to “think outside the box” — unleashing it, some would say — by encouraging thinking that is unconstrained and unstructured.
Without getting too technical, it is useful to regard their practice as a type of Divergent Thinking. The psychologist Joy Paul Guilford first coined this term in 1956. It describes the thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by pursuing many possible solutions. However, Guilford, almost inevitably, also identified an opposite approach to divergent thinking which he described as Convergent Thinking. Convergent thinking follows a process to zero in on just one workable solution. Much conventional teaching and learning occur in a convergent thinking environment.
For the sake of simplicity, let us refer to all divergent-type thinking as Unshackled Thinking and convergent-type thinking (which we are going to talk about now) as Shackled Thinking.
Sink The Boats Again …
In 1519, the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes used a similar trick to that of General Xiang Yu. He led the first expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec empire. After he and his men landed on the East Coast of Mexico, he sank his own ships. Although his men longed to return home, with all their options for doing that eliminated, they quickly re-focused on helping Cortes achieve his expeditionary goal.
Examples of such shackled thinking abound in more genteel pursuits as well.
In The Social History of Art (1951), sociologist Arnold Hauser, in talking about the art of the early Renaissance, observed that an artwork did not normally originate in the creative urge, self-expression, and spontaneous inspiration of the artist, but in the task set by the patron of the proposed creation. In addition to general direction, patrons specified the size of the canvas, number and kind of figures, the amount of expensive pigment to be used, the weight of gold foil in the frame, and other details. Within those imposed boundaries, the artist was then free to exercise their creativity. Such constraints did not hinder the magnificence of what was produced during the Renaissance; they surely contributed to it.
Quilt designs from American Amish society, which are arguably the most unique and collectible in the world, are created in circumstances where constraint on what is acceptable decoration acts as a stimulus to creativity and to the systematic development of the art form. The Amish quilt uses a basic geometric design that is symmetrically put together using fewer pieces and small, evenly spaced stitches. It has bold, saturated colors with the use of black only in the borders. These constraints boost creativity and result in some very striking designs.
Let’s turn to the economic sphere. In his book, Worldly Philosopher; The Odyssey of Albert O Hirschman, Jeremy Adelman records the economist Albert Hirschman’s observations on the Karnaphuli Paper Mills in Pakistan. These were built in 1953 to exploit the ubiquitous bamboo forests but unfortunately, the forests soon died. Those involved found ways to bring bamboo from elsewhere using Pakistan’s many waterways. The constraints imposed by nature forced those involved to be innovative. In fact, ultimately, the more diversified raw material base made the paper mills more valuable than they were before.
What about today? Innovating within the liberty of constraint is now more prevalent than ever and nowhere is this more apparent than within the so-called “sharing economy”. A smartphone enables the connecting of sellers and buyers without the usual constraints. Uber has become the world’s largest car hire service but doesn’t own any cars, sidestepping the previously daunting capital constraint of vehicle ownership. Airbnb is now one of the largest accommodation providers in the world and has avoided owning expensive real estate for its guests. And Facebook, the world’s largest media company, has dodged the need to own content.
So, what do the sketches above suggest to us? It is tempting to say not much. After all, it is not that difficult to cherry-pick a cluster of truncated, historical vignettes and force apparently authentic lessons from what are essentially quirks of days gone by. But although striking in their own way, in their essence the sketches do not reflect quirky behavior at all. Innovating under the burden of imposed constraints is not spectacular, unusual, or rare, either in the past or now. When did we last play Sudoku? If we did, we were consciously seeking a solution that constrained us to fill various grids and sub-grids so that each contained all of the digits from 1 to 9.
Or, when did we last read or watch a detective story? From Sherlock Holmes to Miss Marple, from Hercule Poirot to Harry Bosch, we accompany them as they unravel their cases by treating each clue they discover as a constraint. Ultimately, they solve their case in a way that satisfies all of the constraints they ferret out.
Whether playing Sudoku or vicariously playing detective, we willingly accept necessary constraints in the pursuit of a satisfying goal. The constraints are part of the pursuit and part of the excitement. But we probably never explicitly think of them as constraints.
Which brings us back to Covid-19. Its pervasive constraints on the way we live are not of course something we welcome. But at the same time, those constraints will not be wholly fruitless. Although counter-intuitive, whether intentional or not, limiting our thinking to address some challenge we face can often be more effective than exposing that thinking to endless possibilities.
So, with a more accommodating mindset, what are the specific lessons we can draw from what Xiang Hu, Cortes and company did earlier?
It is possible to conceive of three things that many, many people will do as a result of Covid-19:
ü When confronted with a task, they will re-frame their goal to deliberately exclude the options for its fulfillment that have been side-lined as a result of Covid-19;
ü Freed of a number of such distractions, they will confine their focus to developing only those solutions that are compatible with their re-framed goal; and
ü They will find a solution that satisfies the achievement of their re-framed goal in spite of (and sometimes because of) the constraints that they are now prepared to live with.
The ramifications of Covid-19 — how it plays out in the months and years ahead — are immense, almost certainly incalculable. But it won’t all be bad. New ways of being, new ways of doing that would never have been contemplated under old paradigms, will be explored, refined, and found to be better. Many will become the new norm once Covid-19 has passed. This will occur millions of times in every conceivable type of circumstance. There will be an explosion of innovative activity.
So, let’s not simply bemoan the loss of the freedom we have become used to because of Covid-19. Instead, let’s also seize the opportunity to innovate within the liberty of constraint.