May 19, 2009

Surprising Outcome!



Today I ran an experiment in my creativity class.... The theme of the class was "creativity versus control." Essentially, my goal was to let the students experience what it feels like to work within an environment with different constraints. The question was, " How is innovation affected by the constraints in the environment." I spend a bunch of time in advance thinking about the "perfect" environment - one with the optimum balance of creativity and control. I came up with the idea of using the game of Scrabble...

Scrabble is a perfect model: The board is very structured and there are clear incentives in place. You are encouraged to build out from the center to the edges so that you can reach the squares that earn you a triple letter score. Along the way, you are rewarded with smaller, but still valuable, rewards. So, I brought in eight Scrabble boards and let the students play... Then, every ten minutes I changed the rules of the game. Some of the new rules loosened the rules, and some tightened them up. For example, I might allow them to pick nine letters instead of seven, to use proper names, or foreign words. Or, I might require them to create only four letter words, to add each new word to the prior word, or limit the time they had to add a word to the board.

The results were completely surprising! Whenever I loosened the rules there was an audible cheer! And, when I tightened the rules they groaned. So, you would think that they were more creative when the rules were looser. That is NOT the case! They were more creative - and earned more points - when they had tighter rules. When they had stricter rules they had to be more creative and the players ended up working together to help each other out. They even earned MORE points when the rules appeared to limit their options.

This was a huge AH HA! for all of us.... But, in the end, they all felt that the original rules were perfect and that is why the game has thrived so long. But, they also realized how changing the rules just a small amount dramatically changed their experience. They walked away with a new appreciation for the sensitive levers they have at their disposal when they manage creative teams. They realized that they should fully appreciate the goals they have in mind and put incentives in place to inspire others to reach them. They also learned that even when others think the constraints are too harsh, sometimes those constraints actually stimulate innovation.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

So what are you saying, that freedom of expression stifles innovation? While I can see the logic in using Scrabble as social experimant in this way, surely the outcome is just a lesson in common sense. Where there are more rules you are required to be more creative in order to achieve a better result but with a looser set of rules, 'success' is easier to achieve. If this is not a conclusion that can be drawn from this experiment - I would question it's relevance at all.

Denis said...

The engish proverb necessity is mother of industry was translated in french as "La nécessité est mère de l'invention."

divanmusic said...

This blogpost makes me think of the whole less-is-more principle, also used by painters (Mondrian), musicians (the whole new acoustic movement), dancers (what happens when you only have one square meter to move on?), etc.

The exercise you described is interesting. I'd love to try it myself! It makes me consider walking the difficult path more often...

Keep me posted!

Divan (a musician and creative thinker from Belgium)

sspbpicoaches said...

This should not have been at all surprising! Innovation & creativity - for most of us - occurs within the context of solving specific problems. It's really hard to be creative in a vacuum. When you provide constraints, limits, etc., you force people into a more creative mode. The contraints can be budgetary, time, etc., but I agree with the prior comment about mother being the necessity of invnetion.

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scrabble words with 2 letters said...

I’ve always enjoyed the game Scrabble. The game requires a mixture of vocabulary, strategy, pattern-recognition and luck.