The Box That Is Not A Box (But Is Still A Box)

Chip and Dan Heath write in Fast Company about the power of constraints

Keith Sawyer, author of the insightful book Group Genius, spent years studying the work of jazz groups and improvisational theater ensembles. He found that structure doesn’t hamper creativity; it enables it. When improv comedians take the stage, they need a concrete stimulus: “What if Romeo had been gay?” The stimulus can’t be: “Go on, make me laugh, funnyman.”

“Improv actors are taught to be specific,” Sawyer says. “Rather than say, ‘Look out, it’s a gun!’ you should say, ‘Look out, it’s the new ZX-23 laser kill device!’ Instead of asking, ‘What’s your problem?’ say, ‘Don’t tell me you’re still pissed off about that time I dropped your necklace in the toilet.'” The paradox is that while specificity narrows the number of paths that the improv could take, it makes it easier for the other actors to come up with the next riff.

This is something I’ve emphasized in my talks on improv and ethnography (which always end up being a workshop on improv/ ethnography/ design/ creativity)…the energy that comes from working on problems that are extremely constrained along some axes (i.e., each successive utterance must begin with a successive letter of the alphabet, from A through Z) and utterly open along other axes (i.e., what the actors say can or be anything they want).


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