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When It Comes to Creativity, Attitude Is Key

Low motivation combined with multiple constraints can douse creativity.

Cat and fish in a fish bowl

Photo by xploitme via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Do constraints hinder or help creativity? As with most aspects of creative thinking, the answer is a complex yes.

For decades after Alex Osborn popularized the technique of brainstorming in the 1950s and 1960s, models of creative thought often stressed freedom from constraint as a path toward greater divergent thinking. Osborn's technique focuses on coming up with as many unedited and unscrutinized solutions as possible at the beginning of the creative problem solving process, saving critical evaluation for a later stage. In recent years, however, creativity experts have also focused on how aspects of personality, environment, and constraints themselves can inhibit or enhance the quality and quantity of creative ideas (Medeiros, Partlow & Mumford, 2014).

To understand better the role of constraints in creative problem solving, researchers at the University of Oklahoma recently investigated the interaction of certain types of constraints and the subjects' "need for cognition" or their level of thinking about and engaging with the constraints (what we often think of as motivation). Subjects were asked to develop a marketing plan for a high-energy root beer, with varying degrees of constraints in the following areas: fundamentals (such as the targeted age of consumers, cost, where the product would be sold), themes for the campaign (for example, sports, college life, hobbies), external or internal information (such as information about outside competitors or about internal company goals), and resources (time and money). In addition, the researchers looked at the subjects' expertise and motivation to find a solution and to work with the given constraints.

Some of the more interesting and significant findings and discussions were these (emphases added):

  • "[I]f environmental constraints are imposed and people are willing to think about these constraints creative problem solving does not suffer."
  • “[W]hen people have limited motivation and focus on internal constraints they are especially uncreative.”
  • "[I]t appears that constraints may prove beneficial in facilitating creative thought only when not too few and not too many constraints have been imposed and the constraints imposed are malleable."
  • "[N]eed for cognition, and presumably the investment of resources in thinking about constraints, allows people to produce creative problem solutions even when multiple constraints, with respect to fundamentals, themes, and resources, are operating.”
  • “[E]xpertise was positively related to the production of higher quality, more original, and more elegant solutions.”

One way to understand the results is to put them in the context of a household challenge almost all of us have faced at some point: fixing a meal with limited resources. The limitations might be ingredients, time, money, dietary restrictions, or some other constraint. If we are motivated to work with the given constraints—if we are willing to think about them and manipulate them—we are more likely to come up with a creative dish. Creativity also increases with our level of expertise, such as knowing what ingredients go well with each other or how long different foods take to cook. If we are unmotivated, on the other hand—reluctant to give much attention to the constraints we face—and especially if we also dwell on internal constraints such as our wish to lose weight, our creativity will probably wane.

Stanford Professor Tina Seelig, author of inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity (HarperCollins, 2012), stresses the importance of attitude in creative thinking, which is similar to need for cognition or motivation. She writes in inGenius that "in order to find creative solutions to big problems, you must first believe that you'll find them. With this attitude, you see opportunities where others see obstacles and are able to leverage the resources you have to reach your goals" (p. 180).

The University of Oklahoma authors point out that more research is needed to explore whether similar results are replicated in real-world settings, with different types of constraints, and in fields other than marketing. However, since almost no practical creative problem solving exists free from any limitations whatsoever, their findings can help us to think about how we change our workplaces, homes, and classrooms so as to foster the greatest degree of creativity.

One real world example of the results of emphasizing motivation in the face of constraints comes from MailChimp co-founder and CEO Ben Chestnut. In the short video “Creating an Environment for Creativity and Empowerment,” Chestnut talks about how he fosters creativity not by spending money on fancy resources such as electronic whiteboards but by “subtracting time” and encouraging his employees to “fail all the time.”

However, for this strategy to work, leaders must put in extra time developing employee motivation. Chestnut explains, “You as the leader of the group have to spend an inordinate amount of time explaining to them why they’re building what they’re building, why they only have one freaking week to get it done.” You can watch the video below.

In short, when we are solving problems, rather than trying to eliminate constraints, we might want to engage with them more fully and to find reasons for doing so.


Medeiros, K. E., Partlow, P. J., & Mumford, M. D. (2014, April 7). Not Too Much, Not Too Little: The Influence of Constraints on Creative Problem Solving. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Advance online publication.

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