Don’t be fooled that efficiency and creativity cannot share the same space in business. Efficiency is often a driver for creativity. Limits force us to get inventive with our solutions 

The following Twitter exchange occurred earlier today:


Whilst it may sound counter-intuitive that efficiency and creativity can occur at the same time, efficiency often drives creativity to levels that would never be achieved without constraints. One of the most classic stories of recent times was the Apollo 13 mission that required inventive use of very limited resources running against an absolute time deadline – life support capability running out – to enable astronauts to land safely back on the planet following a catastrophic mission failure in space.

In the Twitter exchange, I referenced Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull, who talked about the benefits of limits to the creative process in his recently published book ‘Creativity Inc’. An excellent read that I highly recommend.

But here’s another example from another recent read – ‘Essentialism’ by Greg McKeown. Greg made some similar recommendations to Ed. In particular with regard to the importance of thoroughly researching a problem before creating solutions.  He used the following example, where a class of students were challenged to design a baby incubator for 1% of the traditional $20,000 cost with the following context:

In the developing world, 4 million low-birthweight children die within the first 28 days because they don’t have enough fat to regulate their body temperature

Now to produce an incubator for just 1% of the cost of the current solutions would lead most to focus on how to produce it more cheaply. But this group of students used the pressure of eliminating 99% of production costs to see if a different approach was possible:

They went to Nepal to see the challenge firsthand. That’s when they discovered 80% of babies were born at home, not in hospital, in rural villages with no electricity. Thus the team’s real challenge, it suddenly became clear, was to create something that did not require electricity at all.

The team of four went on to launch a non-profit called Embrace and created the ‘Embrace Nest’. The solution they created was a sleeping bag-like pod that could be kept wam for six hours by using a wax-like substance heated in water. Without the extreme cost constraint, most people would have focused on how to generate electricity in rural villages, leading to far more complicated and expensive solutions. It’s a great example of creativity to make a real difference.

Both books are good reads if you are interested in creativity and creating better solutions


  • Creativity Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Insipriation, by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, published 2014
  • Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown, published 2014

flickr-incubatorFeatured image: ‘Eliza – Day 5’ kindly shared on Flickr by the Michael Quinn family. From the other photos in the stream, looks like Eliza was home in time for Christmas 🙂


Join the conversation! 5 Comments

  1. In my experience efficiency-driven constraint can certainly foster creativity. Lack of people, lack of money can help create conditions in which innovation does not only emerge but is a necessity for survival. I witnessed this, albeit temporarily, in the UK public sector. A financial crash followed by a change of government placed enormous constraints in the health sector, where I was working at the time. Uncertainty about the future of different organisations, together with a lack or resources, resulted in one of the most creative periods I witnessed working for public bodies.

    As for Catmull’s book, I share your enthusiasm, Sharon. It is a great read with so much in it about creativity, leadership and building an environment in which others can flourish. I wrote a review of sorts in April:

  2. That’s such a good example Richard. I’m a big fan of the ‘Theory of Constraints’ (Jack Vinson introduced me to the topic, many moons ago) and it follows a similar vein. There is always a limit somewhere in the system and it can be used to your advantage when innovation is needed and/or desired.

    And thanks for sharing the link – a beautifully written article. I too really enjoyed the book. It went straight into my mind-map notepad for future reference

  3. […] that perspective either. For example, my fellow change agent and advocate of new ways of working, Sharon Richardson, recently observed, ‘Don’t be fooled that efficiency and creativity cannot share the same space […]

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