There are not too many ways to put a positive spin on the Covid-19 sweeping the world at the moment. It’s a bit of a nightmare, no one knows exactly what will happen next and even the best laid contingency plans are probably in for a bit of a battering.

As part of this uncertainty, there are growing constraints that affect what people know as their day to day lives. Constraints being limitations or restrictions that might curtail, stop or change the way people ordinarily do things. For some people this is mostly about what they are able to buy in the supermarkets (a constraint around available resources) – the toilet paper debacle being one example (insert eye rolling emoji please!). For others it’s obviously far more serious, and there are health constraints, or freedom of movement constraints and a disruption to the day to day run of things. For the facilitator community at present this is largely around the possible or actual postponement of workshops.

It’s hard to plan when you don’t know what’s coming next. But sometimes it’s about dealing with the known and using the difficulties to come up with some innovative solutions to the problems.

There is all sorts of research to suggest that actually imposing some constraints can have a positive effect on creativity. And creativity can lead us to all sorts of good places. Mind you I doubt if any of these researchers were envisaging Coronavirus when they were considering constraints! They were more likely to be thinking about lack of time and resources. But the idea is that by imposing some kind of restriction on what you do, it creates more focus, and perhaps enhances the motivation to succeed, makes you more resourceful and enables you to come up with something new.

Constraints in a workshop setting

In a facilitated workshop all sorts of constraints are used as part of the process. There are all sorts of examples and they are used with different ends in mind. But the principle of providing a constraint is the same – create some kind of limitation/boundary or imposition to enhance the result.

Time constraints are commonly used – “you have one minute to think of as many uses for a teaspoon as possible”. By giving only a short time you stop people self censoring or worrying about what they put down. It enables them to come up with more unfiltered ideas. It creates a focus and determination on the task in hand. For some people the element of competition will also be a positive factor.

Other constraints that are often used in workshops are:

  • To only use a certain amount of words to describe something (eg. describe your team in three words)
  • To write something that will fit on a certain piece of paper or perhaps in boxes pre- drawn on a flipchart
  • To answer questions in a certain way (eg. using “and” not “but”)
  • Forced sentence completion (eg. the best thing about today was……)
  • To create something using limited resources (eg. 5 bits of lego to build a boat).
  • In prioritising (eg pick your top 3)

How well different constraints work, depends to a large extent on how they are being used and the way that they are framed. It also depends on the environment and the people involved. If the time is too tight, or the task too big this can cause stress.

“Employees are more likely to embrace limitations in their creative pursuits in environments with open communication, collaboration, and supportive leadership and supervision.” Acar, Tarakci and Van Knippenberg

Stepping out of the workshop for a moment and thinking about real life examples and the increasing difficulty in moving around and gathering people together. This constraint has already lead to a surge in interest in holding meetings, training sessions and having more conversation online. There are some excellent facilitators who already do this as a matter of course and who have written lots of useful stuff about this. It’s not a new thing, but it is new for many people who are now having to think about how they communicate with groups a little differently. It might not be a preferred way of doing things for many, but when needs must there is a way. And meeting on line will probably save money and time in the long run, and teach people some new skills.

What else has happened around you that means you can embrace the constraints and create something new?

How can you use the constraints around you to come up with something useful that will help carry on through the tricky times rather than panicking and feeling negative?

Here are 3 activities that you can try that will help you think outside the box a little at a time when there are constraints all around:

Reverse brainstorming:

Pose a negative question, eg “How can we encourage our business to fail during the Coronavirus outbreak?”

Ask everyone to list their ideas answers eg “Send all the staff home without any pay” (remember, this is part of the exercise, bear with me!)

Convert the negative results into positive ones eg “Think about all the admin that keeps getting put to one side as no one has time to do it. Ask staff to do it in their imposed “time off” or time working from home when they may not be able to do what they normally do”

TRIZ (Liberating Structures):

Consider a goal for example: “to keep our team motivated when working from home

  • List all the actions that would produce the worst possible results. eg “make them pay for their own IT equipment”
  • Consider this list and decide if there is anything you are doing that looks like one of these “bad ideas”.
  • Then list all the activities you are doing that are counter productive to the key question (in this case to staff motivation)
  • Look through the items on the second list and decide what you might be able to do to stop doing the thing that is creating a negative result.


  • Ask the whole group a key question eg “what do you think will help the team maintain good communication? “
  • First ask everyone to spend a minute writing down their own ideas in silence.
  • In pairs, person A must share her ideas and person B must listen. Swap roles and compare notes before and decide on your top 5 ideas between you. Write one idea per post it.
  • Turn to the pair next to you and repeat as pair A and pair B. You should end up with your top 5 ideas as a group.
  • Present to the wider group your top 5 answers sticking the post its up on a wall so everyone can see. Discuss as a whole group.

If you are still meeting face to face with you team, get them involved! You don’t need a big group, sometimes a small group of 4 or so will suffice. If you have already moved your meetings online then check out this blog on that lists a whole range of online tools.

So, I challenge you in these uncertain times to think about ways to turn constraints around you into advantages and to innovate and expand upon the ways you do things. You may not be in control of these constraints (and unable to pick and choose which ones you want to work with) but it might just be possible to generate some creativity, something good and useful from limitations that may appear to be fast closing in.

After all “necessity is the mother of invention” or so they say……Let me know how you get on!

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