Breaking free from decision paralysis: Unleashing innovation through constraints

Image of crumpled paper bird breaking free from other balls of crumpled paper. Demonstrating decision paralysis and with too much choice.

Key takeaways

  • With rapidly advancing technology, changing consumer expectations, and increased competition, companies must find new and better ways to create value and stay ahead of the curve.
  • By understanding the impact of constraints on our ability to make decisions and generate new ideas, we can overcome the pitfalls of excessive choice and unlock our creative potential.
  • Hackathons serve as an excellent example of how constraints can foster innovative thinking.
  • By leveraging techniques that acknowledge the debilitating power of choice overload, companies can drive innovation by creating favourable circumstances for their teams to generate game-changing new ideas.

In today’s fast-paced and competitive business landscape, innovation is more important than ever. With rapidly advancing technology, changing consumer expectations, and increased competition, companies must find new and better ways to create value and stay ahead of the curve. However, the abundance of choices and information can often lead to decision-making paralysis, where the sheer number of possibilities hinders our ability to make decisions and take action.

Interestingly, research suggests that constraints can actually foster creativity and drive innovation. By limiting our options, constraints force us to think outside the box and come up with novel solutions. This concept, known as the constraint theory of creativity, highlights the power of boundaries in driving innovative thinking.

In this blog post, we will explore the concept of decision-making paralysis, the constraint theory of creativity, and how hackathons serve as a powerful vehicle for innovation. By understanding the impact of constraints on our ability to make decisions and generate new ideas, we can overcome the pitfalls of excessive choice and unlock our creative potential. So, let’s dive in and discover the power of constraints in driving innovation!

What is decision-making paralysis ?

Decision-making paralysis refers to the state of being unable to make a decision due to the overwhelming number of options available. It occurs when an individual or group becomes so caught up in evaluating the potential outcomes of various choices that they struggle to commit to any one course of action.

In the modern world we are faced with an abundance of choice. When I go to the supermarket I can choose from 13 different types of peanut butter, when back at home in London I check to see an app to see which takeaway I want to order. I literally have the world at my fingertips, and when sitting down to slob on the sofa and watch Netflix on a weekday night, I have more than 1,500 series to choose from. What a luxury, you might say, but research has shown that too many options can actually lead to decision-making paralysis.

Whilst this effect in the context of me, staring blankly at a screen struggling to know which series to choose, isn’t of massive consequence (apart from totally wasting my own time) when it comes to the world of work this paralysis can have serious consequences.

Why is an abundance of choice a bad thing?

So, let’s delve into how an abundance of choice isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I’ll give you a personal example. I live near a massive ice cream shop (literally, a dream come true for me). The shop has around 35 different types of homemade ice cream to choose from. You can have scoops of ice cream in a cup, a cone, or on top of a waffle. As you can imagine, I am a regular visitor sinking a significant percentage of my income into purchasing ice cream at this shop. However, I have only ever bought the same two flavours (banana and chocolate if you are interested). Why? Because when I walk into this shop of dreams, I feel overwhelmed by how much choice there is. Plus, there is always a queue of people behind me, so I freak out and just order the same two flavours that I panic-chose the first time. Whilst the banana and chocolate ice cream are undoubtedly delicious, I am missing out on trying one of the other 33 flavours, and I can’t seem to break out of the habit. I’m trapped in a cycle of repeating the same decision again and again.

So, as you can see this excess of choice doesn’t just seem to cause paralysis, it also makes us a bit unhappier. Psychologist Barry Shwartz came up with the theory ‘the paradox of choice’ in which he posits that excessive choice can lead to increased anxiety, lowered wellbeing and decreased satisfaction with the decision-making process. For example, a study found that shoppers who had to choose from a selection of 24 jams were less satisfied with their choice than those who only had six options.

Let’s look at this from a business perspective. What impact can choice overload and subsequent decision-making paralysis have on important business decisions?

The negative business impact

Brad Garlinghouse, a senior vice president at Yahoo in the 2000s wrote about how the company had struggled with freezing up in the face of a multitude of options. He wrote a memo called the “Peanut Butter Manifesto” in 2006 in which he criticised Yahoo’s decision-making process, stating: “We lack a focused, cohesive vision for our company. We want to do everything and be everything — to everyone. We’ve known this for years, talk about it incessantly, but do nothing to fundamentally address it. We are scared to be left out. We are repeatedly stymied by challenging and hairy decisions. We are held hostage by our analysis paralysis.”

This memo highlights how an abundance of choices and a lack of focus led to Yahoo teams becoming paralysed in the face of decisions, something which ultimately contributed to a decline in the company.

How do we overcome decision-making paralysis?

So, if having too many choices in front of us can cause us to freeze up & stagnate, what can we do about it? The answer is quite simple, impose constraints and boundaries on tasks and decision-making processes.

Imagine if I invited you to a creative writing class and I set you a task to write a story. Would the task be easier if I a) said you could write a story about absolutely anything b) asked you to write a story about a particularly memorable birthday. Most people would find the latter easier as I have honed in on specifics and given you clear parameters within which to imagine.

The constraint theory of creativity

The ‘constraint theory of creativity’ suggests that constraints force individuals to think outside the box and come up with novel solutions. The facilitative effects of constraints in creativity have been well  documented in product development, engineering design, visual art, athletics and patent filings as well as anecdotally in examples from incarcerated artists and myriad statements from accomplished creators, such as Igor Stravinsky, the renowned Russian composer, who famously said, “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.”

Many successful companies are regularly using the idea of generative constraint to increase innovation. Take the example of Amazon’s “Two-Pizza Rule”: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos introduced the “Two-Pizza Rule,” which states that any team should be small enough that it can be fed with two pizzas. This constraint helps teams focus on specific tasks, make decisions quickly, and innovate more effectively (as well as avoiding over-inviting people to meetings that they don’t need to be a part of).

Hackathons

Another way of imposing constraints to help generate ideas is the hackathon. I am a bit of a hackathon evangelist, but I won’t just preach at you about it, I’ll explain why they are great. When you hear the word ‘hack’ images of someone hacking into a computer might come to mind OR you might think of the term ‘life hacks’ those nifty workarounds that make life easier. The term ‘hackathon’ has more in common with the latter. They are time bound events (usually 24-28 hours in length) in which people from different backgrounds and skill sets come together to brainstorm and build awesome solutions to real-world problems.

Hackathons are like pressure cookers for innovation — the time limit and competitive spirit really get those creative juices flowing! It’s a whirlwind of teamwork throwing ideas around and, I imagine, consuming a lot of snacks and coffee, all leading up to some seriously impressive projects.  Companies like Facebook and Airbnb have made use of the hackathon model to develop new products and features. The sense of urgency these events engender has encouraged rapid innovation and produced fast results.

For example, Facebook’s hackathons are a core part of the company’s culture and have been responsible for the creation of some of its most iconic features. The “like” button, for example, was developed during a hackathon in 2007 and has since become a ubiquitous feature of the social media platform. Facebook’s hackathons typically last several hours or even days and encourage employees to collaborate and experiment with new ideas.

Capital One is another organisation who are big fans of the hackathon. Their hackathons bring together employees from different departments to collaborate on new ideas and solutions to business challenges. They’ve also got philanthropic with their hackathons and, since 2016, Capital One in Canada has organised the Gift the Code Hackathon which brings together coders, digital strategists and other experts to help bridge technology gaps faced by local charities.

Adobe also regularly hosts ‘Creative Jams’ which, in a hackathon-style event, brings together teams of designers, developers, and creatives to compete in a design challenge using Adobe Creative Cloud solutions and learn new tools, new features and new, collaborative ways of working with their colleagues. Adobe also regularly hosts ‘Creative Jams’ which, in a hackathon-style event, brings together teams of designers, developers, and creatives to compete in a design challenge using Adobe Creative Cloud solutions and learn new tools, new features and new, collaborative ways of working with their colleagues.

And, outside of the corporate world, one example which I love it the “48-Hour Film Project”: This international competition, which has gone global and taken place in 45 countries and 200 cities to date, challenges teams of filmmakers to write, shoot, edit, and score a short film in just 48 hours. The time constraint encourages rapid creativity and experimentation, and the competition has led to the production of thousands of short films since its inception.

By providing a focused and time-limited environment, these hackathons have helped these companies and individuals tap into their creativity and drive innovation.


Final thoughts

To sum up, the concept of decision-making paralysis can be a significant hurdle in our personal and professional lives. However, by flipping this problem on its head and embracing the power of constraints, we can transform this obstacle into an opportunity for creativity and innovation.

Hackathons serve as an excellent example of how constraints can foster innovative thinking. By bringing together diverse groups of individuals and restricting time and resources, these events encourage participants to collaborate and generate unique solutions to real-world challenges.

By leveraging techniques that acknowledge the debilitating power of choice overload, companies can drive innovation by creating favourable circumstances for their teams to generate game-changing new ideas.

Do you want to learn how to unlock creativity? Find out more here and see how we can help

At VTT, we understand the importance of bringing enterprise to your business. In order to succeed, we run workshops that help foster a culture in which employees can really define and harness their artistry to ensure the company grows and thrives.

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