May 19, 2009
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.