The Path of Most Resistance

The very first time the students meet Tina Seelig, Executive Director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, she gets them to play Scrabble. Once into the game Seelig starts to change the rules every 10 minutes. Some of the rules restrict the students and make the game easier, other rules open up more opportunities for them and make the game easier. To make the game easier, for example, Tina Seelig allows the students to choose nine letters instead of seven, to use real names and foreign words. To make the game more difficult she requires that they only use words with four letters, build every word onto the prior word only, or add a word to the board inside a specific time limit.
The interesting thing is that every time Tina Seelig (get her book InGenius HERE) loosens the rules and makes the game easier, the students cheer, and when she tightens the rules and make the game harder, they complain. Rated on their reaction you would think that the students would score most points when there were not too many rules, and when they had more freedom and more opportunities, but it is far from the case.
Every time Selig conducts this experiment, she sees that students perform significantly better and make significantly more points when she tightens rules. The restrictions simply force them into a creative mindset and push them to dig deep into themselves for new solutions.
Tina Seelig’s experiment is extremely interesting because it challenges one of the most ingrained assumptions about creative performance. We’ve all heard about Google allowing their employees to spend 20% of their time working on whatever project the like to do. In other words: total freedom. But is it possible that the worst you can do to nurture people’s creativity is to give them freedom and get out of their way? Is it possible that creativity thrives under intelligent constraints and not in freedom?
I’m a strong believer that if you give a team the full time they ask for, or the full budget they want, or the full number of people that they need, those teams will never execute anything of significance. But if you give them less, make things more challenging, give them a constraint, it pushes them to have to think in a unique way and come if what they didn’t think was possible themselves.

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