A creative task becomes more challenging when surprising constraints are added. This is important to know, because we often have limited resources; if we are to create a better world, we can’t wait for billions of dollars to pour in. We can start creating solutions right away with what we have.

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  1. A way to encourage people’s innovative thinking is to give them a challenge to think in new ways. In this exercise, you want people to design a new café or coffee house for their community. Here’s the one catch: It can’t serve coffee!
  2. Place everyone in teams of 4 people.
  3. Give the teams 10 minutes to brainstorm what their coffee-less coffee house would do. How would it work? What would it sell? How would it stay in business?
  4. At the end of the 10 minutes, each group can present their ideas to the entire group. Usually people have fun with this, and come up with extraordinarily innovative ideas.
  • You can spur this innovative thinking with other examples: For example, you can ask the participants what are necessary elements of a restaurant. They might say that every restaurant needs food, a chef, waiters/waitresses, silverware, walls, a floor, etc. Now take away one of those elements. How might you have a restaurant that doesn’t serve food? How might you have a restaurant with no chef? How might you have a restaurant with no walls? In each case, you can spur innovative thinking by putting limits and constraints around a problem.
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Ask the participants for their reaction to this activity. Often they say that it was surprisingly fun and easy. This gets into an important point about creativity and innovation. A key ingredient for innovation is to have constraints. People are more creative when they have limits and obstacles, rather than when they have free rein. There’s a lot of truth in the old saying: “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

In design thinking, the key phrase is “How might we…?” This phrase is an essential tool for getting people to think of possibilities, where otherwise they might have seen roadblocks.

Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer offers a fascinating example of this. She goes into a room of schoolchildren and shows a picture of a man in a wheelchair. She asks the children if this man can drive a car.

Overwhelmingly, the children say no.

Then she goes into a different room of schoolchildren. She shows the same picture of a man in a wheelchair. This time she asks, “How might this man drive a car?”

Inevitably, the children come up with dozens of creative ideas: “He could use a pole to to push down on the brakes and accelerator… He could use a voice-operated system… He could have someone in the passenger seat who has their own brakes and accelerator, while he steers the wheel…”

The main difference is just asking for how might we solve a problem.


Jane McGonigal, an expert on games, has written about how obstacles are actually necessary to create great experiences. No game would be fun unless there were obstacles and limits. She gives the example of golf. If the goal were just to get the ball into the hole, with no constraints, then people could just walk up to the hole and drop the ball in with their hands. But that would be no fun! There would be no challenge. What makes the game fun is the element of constraints: You are more than 100 feet away from the hole; using only a club, you have to get a small ball into that small hole.


Transformative Action Institute, based on traditional improv and creativity exercises

Additional Readings

Ellen Langer, Mindfulness