The one essential condition for success with any new project

chuck close painting

If you are doing anything creative — and that includes leadership, entrepreneurship, and change-making when you’re doing something challenging and impactful — setting up for success can make the difference between impact or flop.  Every creative endeavor needs the right conditions for success.  A writer needs pen and paper, a computer, maybe a printer.  And a quiet place — and time.  Other practices require much more extensive setups — think about the credits at the end of every film. 

In any kind of social creativity — the application of creativity to leadership, organizational and social change, and entrepreneurship — your starting conditions will be based on what you’re trying to accomplish, just as an art studio is set up to produce either paintings or sculpture, but not both.  The field of social creativity isn’t about pigment or wood; it’s about people.  We’re going to cover one essential to think about before you begin — or to help you course correct mid-project.

The Multiple Benefits of Defining Constraints

Many people think of creative work as open-ended, freeform, whatever happens.  However, that’s not how it works.  Ironically, creativity flows best NOT when you have a completely open-ended spectrum of possibilities, but instead, when you have clear constraints — sometimes, the narrower, the better.  The trick is choosing the constraints that provide enough structure for movement and creative work exactly where they’re needed. 

The following list of constraints can help you stay sane, on track, and feasible.  

  1. This is the John Cage rule (also known as the Genesis rule, because God created the world in six days and then stood back and looked at his work).  “Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time.  They are different processes.”  In a creative process, you will cripple your flow and the quality of your output if you try to assess what you’re doing while you’re doing it. Establish a rhythm of making, then reflecting, making, then reflecting —and get a feel for the difference.  Learn to notice when you fall into a habit of doing both at the same time.
  2. What’s the scope of your project? What are you actually going to DO in order to create change?  If you are, say, inviting a bunch of stakeholders in a community for a series of workshops, how many will you run, and how many people do you want to invite?  Along with this of course are questions about your goals.  Will your process achieve your desired outcomes?  How?    
  3. What is the geography of your project? How big is this thing going to be — how many people does it need to reach?  Your entire organization?  A small community of 100 people? A whole city?  A region?  You’d be surprised at how many change projects don’t take this simple and practical step, which is so helpful in determining the strategy and making day to day decisions.
  4. What is the timeline of your project? How long is it expected to run?  Being time limited focuses the mind and resources.
  5. Do you have a finish line? Don’t let your project be open ended. You need to know when you are finished so you can assess, reflect, and measure what you’ve achieved.  See the first point about creating and analyzing if you need more reasons.

There are certainly other conditions that are equally important, among them legitimacy (ensuring that the project’s leaders are recognized and valued by key stakeholders and constituents), relationships (knowing and cultivating connections with key stakeholders), ideal customer/recipient profile (knowing whom you’re serving and their needs), results (actually producing real results, not just workshops and reports). We’ll get to those in future articles, so stay tuned!


Jeff and Louisa

Photo: Painting by Sarah858 (Self-Portrait in the style of Chuck Close)

1 Comment

  1. Betsy on January 8, 2017 at 8:57 am

    As I am beginning a new project in this new year, this advice is so timely! I definitely see the value in having defined constraints, or boundaries, to work within and value the questions you ask in order to define those boundaries. It’s kinda like giving the body to the octopus so that all of the legs can move and explore independently but can, at the same time, get the octopus where it wants to go.
    I had also never heard of the John Cage or Genesis rule and that feels like it will greatly help me at this point in my writing. I was getting stuck by trying to write and edit at the same time. It feels like the rhythm of write then reflect, write then reflect will be a step in creating structure to my endeavors. Thank you so much for your thoughtful advice!

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