Breaking Boundaries

Imagine a team of talented people working together, developing the next generation of their flagship product. They have to design and manage a change so significant it will affect all variants of their multi-platform product, and of course, it has to be ready and launched seamlessly in perfect synchronization. It is a delicate design and engineering task, but as subtle as it is, its scope is vast. Millions of users are to be affected by it. The upcoming release is designed to introduce a major improvement to the product, but if something goes wrong, users could be left without the ability to use the service for days.

What picture do you have in mind when reading this description? Can you see this team working together? How does this group effort look like? Do you see a big room, a lot of laptops on the table, a huge whiteboard with sketches, and the commotion of an ongoing brainstorming (or multiple instances of it) filling the space?

Now, imagine your task is to build such a team from scratch. What do you do?

If you are like most managers in most companies, you probably start to look around. You turn to local recruitment companies or use online platforms to post the relevant job openings and start getting CVs. The people you aim to recruit are probably living in the same city or at least one within a reasonable distance. In parallel, you have to make sure your new team will have the physical facilities available for them. They will need offices or cubicles, some space to work together, laptops, and on and on. So, if you are like most managers in most companies, you start off with some clear boundaries that seem to define how you can achieve your goal.

If you are like Amir Salihefendić, however, you realize the boundaries surrounding your problem are false boundaries. They are limiting you for no good reason. You realize that breaking these artificial boundaries is the key to a creative solution — an idea that will not only solve the immediate problem you are facing, but will also have enormous value and will open the door to new opportunities. And so, Amir decided that his company, Doist, will be a remote-first company. The team he has managed to create is scattered across 25 countries around the globe, working in 10 different time-zones, either from home or from near-home co-working spaces, with no physical company offices. Recruitment at Doist is not limited to any geographical location, which obviously opens infinite space of possibilities both for the company and for its candidate employees. But what is even more impressive is the amazing “side-effects” this decision had. Diversity is built into this way of work by design — you don’t have to artificially make it happen. Productivity and engagement are far beyond the average. And the operational costs of the company are significantly lower than the ones of a similar-size company working in one or two main physical sites.

By breaking the boundaries of the problem space, Amir managed to create a better solution than other companies had in order of magnitude.

Constraints: The Real Story

By now, practically everyone knows that constraints promote Creativity. Yes, it seemed counter-intuitive at first, but this statement has become such a cliché that our collective intuition has changed with it. We celebrate constraints. Many of the seempli games are driven by adding constraints. On some occasions, we even add restrictions artificially to real-world problems assuming this will boost our Creativity. And sometimes it really works.

At the same time, falling in love with constraints so much that they hide simple, often better solutions is not creative, nor is it effective. We always assume some boundaries and let them define the problem. Sometimes, breaking these boundaries is precisely what is needed to allow groundbreaking solutions.

Breaking boundaries can be done in many ways. In this post, I would like to discuss one way to do that: by adding a new dimension or expanding an existing one. But let’s start at the beginning: if constraints are so great and they help us focus and frame the problem, why should we try to break the boundaries they define?

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Falling in love with constraints so much that they hide simple, often better solutions is not creative, nor is it effective. #creativity #problemsolving #innovation ” quote=”Falling in love with constraints so much that they hide simple, often better solutions is not creative, nor is it effective.”]

Not all constraints are alike. One way in which they differ is how real they are. Simply put, some constraints are real, while others are fake ones. Fake constraints are not easy to spot because they are often rooted in our own false, implicit assumptions — they seem very real to us.

Fake constraints create boundaries, just like real ones. They create mental walls that can limit our solution space, and these walls, although they are in our head, seem real enough. They might push us toward a creative solution, but they might also prevent us from seeing an obvious solution — a solution that could have been just in front of us if it weren’t for that wall.

Amir’s solution for building a super-team of talented people broke such a fake boundary. The assumption a workplace is first and foremost a physical place and recruitment should, therefore, target potential employees located near you, proved to be a false assumption. Amir managed to break the boundary — a mental boundary most of us have— created by this pseudo-constraint, and by doing so, he found a whole new space of possibilities.

So, fake constraints create mental boundaries, and breaking these boundaries can help us think of great ideas. But some constraints are real — they seem to be an inherent part of the challenge we are trying to address. Real constraints create real boundaries around the solution space. Sometimes, these boundaries help us focus on what we have — the things available within the walls. But often, these boundaries can be broken or overridden too, and when we manage to do that, we once again find ourselves in a whole new solution playground.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”So, fake constraints create mental boundaries, and breaking these boundaries can help us think of great ideas. #creativity #problemsolving” quote=”So, fake constraints create mental boundaries, and breaking these boundaries can help us think of great ideas.”]

One of the useful ways for breaking boundaries, both real and fake ones, is playing with dimensions.

Playing with Dimensions

A few months ago, I’ve moved from all-digital to mostly-analog note-taking. The impact of this change was almost immediate because the different medium forced me to work at a different pace. But within each page in my notebook, I worked pretty much in the same way I did before. When I logged something, I just wrote a few lines of text. Then, when I moved to the next entry, I started to write under the previous paragraph. When I logged a list of items (for example, tasks), I used a simple list: one item under the other. It was all linear. Until I tried something else: instead of taking notes vertically, I allowed myself to use the entire space of the page — something which was not trivial when I worked digitally.

I placed items freely on the page, connected them with simple lines or arrows, and left empty spaces to allow more details to be added later. If you are familiar with Mind Mapping, this may look familiar, and the basic idea is, in fact, similar. But I took it to an extreme: I didn’t limit myself to a central topic that branches out to subtopics and so on. I just used the space on the page freely, until some connections were apparent. Adding a new dimension to my note-taking practice helped me break the boundaries of the conventional way of writing down things on a page. Instead of writing a stream, I created an associative map without any structural limits. And I found it to be much more effective and thought-provoking.

It’s a simple example of how adding a new physical dimension can change drastically, not only the options you have but also the types of options you can use.

Amir Salihefendić did something similar when he ignored the false boundaries in his team-building challenge. He didn’t add a new dimension, but he significantly expanded an existing one. Instead of working with a relatively small space around a central location, he decided that any point on the planet is in the game. By expanding the physical dimension by orders of magnitude, he managed to build a successful company with a smaller investment and much better results.

But what about real constraints that create real boundaries? Can we play with dimensions when the walls around us are real? Well, often enough, we can! Breaking boundaries, in this case, requires us to realize which dimensions are not limited and change direction accordingly.

A few years ago, I thought about creating a photo-series in which each photo captures the spirit of one street in Tel-Aviv, at least as I sensed it. I wanted to tell a story that is unique to that street — a story that cannot be captured in any other street. Armed with my camera, I went out, picked one street (fairly randomly), and started to walk from one end of the street to the other and back. Now, when I’m on a photo-walk, I rarely think about the endgame. I try to be present and give my full attention to the things around me. And so, I found myself with quite a few photos from that photo-walk. Each of them had potential, but none of them told the unique story of that particular street. Each photograph captured a limited view of the street at a specific time. A good picture can tell a story despite these inherent limitations, but I tried to tell the story of the street, and not of a building or a window or an object I found. I was facing the real constraints and boundaries of the tool I was using. Until I realized that these real walls still allow me to play with another dimension.

I stacked some of the photographs I took one on top of the other and played with their transparency and blending, and suddenly I saw something similar to a memory. Just like a memory, it wasn’t always coherent, different frames got tangled together, affecting each other, and none of them was complete or represented reality faithfully. And yet I felt the result had managed to capture how I perceived that street.

By adding a new dimension — one which was not confined to the perfectly real limitations of my camera — I managed not only to overcome my challenge but also to create a new opportunity for my work to evolve. And that is the real benefit of playing with dimensions. Ideas enabled by adding or expanding a dimension are rarely “more of the same.” Playing with dimensions often creates new types of solutions and, with them, new opportunities.

So, whenever you are looking for a creative idea, whether it is for a challenge or when facing an opportunity, try to map the boundaries you think you are confined to. Whether they are real boundaries or fake ones, try to break them: try to play with a new dimension or expand an existing one and jump over the walls that might be limiting you. Maybe, just maybe, a groundbreaking solution waits for you on the other side.

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