Wilma Koutstaal Ph.D.

Our Innovating Minds

Finding (and Making) Sweet Spots in Your Creative Process

The Goldilocks principle for project requirements: Neither too many nor too few.

Posted Sep 21, 2017

Capture Queen via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Capture Queen via Wikimedia Commons

Imagine that you have just been invited to take part in an online experiment in which you will be asked to generate as many creative ideas as possible. 

Imagine, too, that you are given the opportunity to first read the instructions for the creative challenge you will be set, and that you can choose between one of two sets of instructions, A or B. 

Both versions outline your responsibilities. Version A says you'll be asked to take part in "an idea-generating task involving various commonly found household items" such as "a 14-inch nonstick-cooking pan or wooden door stoppers." Version B is slightly more general, saying that you'll be asked to take part in "an idea-generating task involving household items" such as "cooking pans and door stoppers." 

You are also told that exactly 25 percent of the responses will be reviewed (Version A) or, instead, that some––no percentage specified––will be reviewed (Version B). Additionally, you are told "You will receive your compensation within 48 hours of completing this task, in your PayPal account" (Version A) or "You will receive your compensation within 2 days" (Version B).

Which of the two versions of the instructions do you prefer: Version A or Version B? Do you think you'd be likely to come up with more creative ideas if given Version A or if given Version B? Why? 

Testing it out

A team of researchers from four different universities (University of Virginia, Stanford, Columbia, and Northwestern) joined forces to compare the creative performance of participants after they had been randomly assigned to read one of the two versions of the instructions. Even though the instructions appear to be largely the same, providing similar information (e.g., 48 hours vs. 2 days) creative idea generation differed in the two versions. 

Participants (91 U.S. English-speaking Amazon Turk workers) who read Version B instructions––which are more generally stated and somewhat more open-ended––generated significantly more original ideas and also more unique ideas than did participants who read the more specific detailed instructions of Version A. 

But was this just a fluke finding? Probably not, because a similar outcome was observed when the researchers used slightly different wording with another group of 80 Amazon Turk workers. Again, people who received the generally-worded instructions generated more unique uses in the idea generation task than did people who encountered detailed instructions. 

Why might this be?

Why would wording the instructions in a more general or open-ended manner make a difference to creative performance––or to any other aspects of performance? 

Clues are provided by several other studies reported by the same researchers, in which they asked participants to solve other tasks (such as insight problems) and also asked them to answer questions, such as how much their work depended on their desire to get paid or how autonomous they felt. 

It seemed that the generally worded instructions gave participants more "breathing room" for their own thinking to come to the fore. The generally worded instructions left space for participants to feel like it was more up to them how they contributed. Even though the differences in the instructions were subtle, the broader instructions appeared to tap into the participants' intrinsic interests and intrinsic motivation in engaging in the task, encouraging them to commit more to the task, and ultimately enhancing their performance.

Creativity, constraints, and finding our "sweet spot" (the Goldilocks principle)  

It can make us feel uncomfortable if we are placed under too many requirements for creativity or other endeavors: We can feel hemmed in, too closely supervised, or monitored. Equally true, however, is that it can make us feel uncomfortable when there are too few requirements, or the requirements are stated in a way that is overly vague, fuzzy, and indeterminate. 

W. Koutstaal
Finding your creativity sweet spot.
Source: W. Koutstaal

It seems there's a "sweet spot" where there's just enough given in the requirements of a new endeavor to help us see the goals and structure of a situation, but not so much given that it squashes all room for us to shape the task. There's just enough structure provided to still allow us to imbue it with our own peculiar twists and turns within the given constraints. 

Exactly where our "sweet spot" is may differ. Some of us may prefer a little more guidance, others a little less, or this may vary from one time or context to another, but extremes on either side are unlikely to bring out the best in us or in our teams.

To think about

As we emphasize in Innovating Minds, constraints are both made and found. This gives us important wiggle room that we don't always recognize.   

  • If one of your creative projects is floundering or languishing, could it be because the project has too many constraints or too few? 

If too many: Are all of the constraints equally central or necessary? Could you let one or more of the apparent requirements go, or modify it to give you greater room for flexibility? 

If too few: Could you choose a new constraint for yourself, or make a constraint tighter, to give your aims and options more definite structure? 

  • When you embark on a new project, do you explicitly ask yourself about the nature of the constraints for your project: Is each one really necessary or only "nice to have"? Where did each of the assumed constraints come from, and do they (really) all still apply?   
  • Think of the child on a swing we see above. We might see her as constrained by the swing she sits on. But doesn't that very constraint free her to safely and swiftly reach for the highest heights?


Chou, E. Y., Halevy, N., Galinsky, A. D., & Murnighan, J. K. (2017).  The Goldilocks contract: The synergistic benefits of combining structure and autonomy for persistence, creativity, and cooperation.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113, 393–412.

Koutstaal, W., & Binks, J. (2015).  Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change.  New York: Oxford University Press.