Many fields have long embraced constraints as necessary for creativity. Without bounding the problem you’re trying to solve, it’s difficult to see the big picture, to know where to start, or how to focus your attention – much like trying to write a paper without a thesis. Lately, there is increasing acknowledgement of the importance of constraints such as Jonah Lehrer’s Wired post highlighting the research of Janina Marguc at the University of Amsterdam.
It turns out that constraints are also an engaging and effective way to facilitate a conversation, something I’ve learned working with designer Scott Francisco.* Whether you’re trying to balance a budget, plan a meeting, or design a building, workshop activities that make the constraints visible enable better conversations and decision-making.
Here’s how it works:
1. BOUNDARY: Identify the key constraint that defines the problem you’re trying to solve. For instance, the budget (money), the duration of the meeting (time), the size of the building (area). Then create a boundary like a simple square on a large sheet of paper that represents this constraint at some scale (e.g.: a 1” square = $1000, 10mins, 100 square feet, etc)
2. GAME PIECES: Create “game pieces” that represent the different pieces your trying to decide on: different programs within the budget, different possible activities within the meeting, different spaces within the building. These can be color-coded slips of paper / cardstock / post-its. They must be at the same “scale” as the boundary so you can see the relative size of each idea or component. (This may help you realize that one proposed program would take up most of your budget, for instance.)
3. GAME PLAY: Gather a representative group of 12 – 18 stakeholders committed to finding a solution that works by the end of the exercise. Then, play out different scenarios arranging the components to see what “fits” inside the boundary constraint. This can be as one group or with teams working in parallel then comparing and combining results. Along the way, you can discuss and document the merits of each component, the trade-offs, and other options. Do this multiple times to take the pressure off getting it right the first time and photograph each iteration so that you can compare.
4. BONUS ROUND: As an additional option, once you’ve agreed on what fits inside the boundary constraint, you can also continue the discussion to relate the different elements by arranging the components on a sheet; for instance, which programs within the budget depend on each other? What should the sequence of meeting activities be? What spaces within the building should be next to each other?
By making the constraints visible and tangible, you enable a better conversation and unlock the creativity of your group to solve problems together. You also have a visible record of the decisions made as well as a shared sense within the group of what’s involved, how the different components go together, and what’ve you’ve agreed on.
* Scott Francisco developed a space planning facilitation tool called the Sandbox which uses a kit of parts to try out different workplace design concepts within a limited amount of space. You can read more about it here and here. We subsequently took the principles of the Sandbox and applied it more broadly to the kinds of exercises described above.