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In Businesses or the Arts, Constraints Aid Creativity

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, September 21, 2015
Aligning Simple Rules With Goals
Claude Monet's famous water lilies are actually part of a series of some 250 paintings in which the artist repeatedly explored shape, form, and movement in the light, color, and reflections that varied with time and seasons. Ever changing perceptions of the lilies, which he cultivated himself at his garden at Giverny, were the focus of his artistic work in the last 30 years of his life.
His earlier series of paintings that were related by subject and perspective included at least 10 paintings done at the Valley of the Creuse, and at least 25 canvases showing how his vision of haystacks in the fields near his home varied with the hour, the light, rain, sun and season. Critics say his work expanded the boundaries of vision and its representation with paint and brush strokes.
An introduction to the Water Lilies exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York provides Monet's thoughts on what he was trying to accomplish with the series: he said he wanted to create "the iIlusion of an endless whole, without horizon or bank." As he explored  the continually changing qualities of light and color, the introduction says, spatial cues of boundary and distance disappear as water and sky commingle. MoMA Curator Ann Temkin explains that Monet's work forever changed Impressionism, creating a new form that inspired and influenced later artists including Picasso. Earlier Impression gave the onlooker a view of a defined space in an understandable location-a field, a seaside. Seeing Monet's water lilies, she said, the viewer is immersed in the light and color of water, flowers and sky without edges or conventional markers.
Do the most creative artists relish the freedom to let their imaginations run wild? Or does their creativity flourish with the discipline of constraint? Kathleen Eisenhardt, in the book Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World, which she coauthored with Donald Sull, describes research suggesting that rules foster creativity. In one study, high school students given "how to" rules, one type of simple rules, were judged most creative in composing a story and a sticker collage. Their work was compared with that of similar students who were given no rules, or just told to be creative. The authors also quote Patricia Stokes, a painter and psychologist at Columbia University, who has studied how master artists such as Monet, Piet Mondrian and the Scottish poet William Motherwell produced their groundbreaking work. Stokes says they imposed constraints on themselves, in terms of their subjects, the tools and materials they used, and the artists from whom they drew inspiration.
"By constraining infinite possibilities, simple rules allow creativity to flourish," Eisenhardt and Sull write, "less from thinking outside the box and more from deciding how to draw the box in the first place."    
The authors address creativity in music as well as visual arts, and describe the speed with which the band White Stripes produced two hit albums. The Guardian hailed White Stripes as "the key band of their time" and Rolling Stone reported White Stripes were the most influential band of the 2000s, with their mix of classic rock and boisterous punk. Eisenhardt and Sull write that the 2001 hit White Blood Cells was based on five simple rules: no blues, no guitar solos, no slide guitar, no covers and no bass. The rules constrained the musicians to a certain box, fueled rapid fire creativity, and led them to finish 18 songs in 10 days. The authors quote White Stripes frontman Jack White's comment to a New York Times interviewer: "I'm disgusted by artists or song writers who pretend there are no rules. There's nothing guiding them in their creativity." People in retailing or banking might agree.  
In their book on simple rules, Eisenhardt and Sull draw on a decade of research on how people develop the art of applying  simple rules tailored to a multitude of complex situations in businesses, professions, and personal lives. The book is full of great stories and interesting ideas, as well as discussions of different kinds of rules and their applications in vastly different environments. You can learn more about Kathleen Eisenhard's discoveries and insights on tomorrow's PlexusCall.

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