The Joy of Constraints in Business

06/06/2014 02:07 pm ET | Updated Aug 06, 2014

Before starting Doorsteps, I was lucky enough to spend a handful of years leading the New York office of IDEO, a well-known design and innovation firm that's probably touched your life in some way, whether by a product, service or experience. While at IDEO, I spent a lot of time trying to understand the creative process, and the monumental, yet simple, lesson I learned was : Creativity loves constraints.

Very early in my career, I had a fairly shortsighted view of what it meant to be creative or innovative. I thought visionaries spent their time filling up blank pieces of paper with amazing, never-before-seen ideas that magically poured out of them. And yet, ask any creative thinker and they'll tell you that a blank piece of paper is the worst thing in the world. Why? Because when the answer can be anything, you usually end up with nothing.

What is it about constraints that make us more creative? With a set of guidelines to govern how you design your offering and make decisions, you actually unleash more creativity. Constraints are often advantages in disguise -- edges that encourage us to focus and go farther, faster.

Just look at Twitter and their 140 character constraint. Twitter's best practices reference how "Creativity loves constraints and simplicity is at our core and how tweets are limited to 140 characters so they can be consumed easily anywhere, even via mobile text messages." Ask any Twitter user and they will most likely tell you that those 140 characters have forced them to be more focused and clear about what they are trying to communicate.

As an entrepreneur looking to create something new, what are some ways you can unleash the creativity and innovation capacity of you and your teams?

Set some constraints.

For instance, as we built Doorsteps, we knew we couldn't be everything to everyone. So we had to decide what we valued, why and how it was going to guide our business decisions.

To paraphrase from a particularly inspiring (and process-driven) entrepreneur I recently met: "If you've got a great set of rules to follow, you're even more nimble and ready to strike when opportunity presents itself. Your constraints help you know how to change when you must, not simply that you must change."

Here's an example:

From the outset, we believed that Doorsteps' mission in the world was to make the process of buying a home more human and accessible. That simple idea -- a constraint, really -- has forced us to change our behavior in a million different ways from a product, service and business perspective.

Take dealing with customer feedback. Conventional wisdom says that as you get bigger and more mature as a company, you should increasingly rely on templates to automatically respond to queries. While there are many companies out there today going above and beyond on the customer service side, there are still some that are stuck in the stone ages. But that didn't seem very human, and being delightful and human was a key principle at Doorsteps.

So, we set up what we felt were the three most important guidelines for dealing with any questions, concerns, or suggestions we got from customers.

1. Be thankful when someone writes us. For any reason. Every customer has something valuable to teach us, and we're lucky to be in correspondence with them. Feedback really is a gift.

2. Be responsive to every request or question within 24 hours -- but ideally within five minutes.

3. Be thoughtful by taking the time you need to give a unique, smart reply. No automated answers. No legalese. Carefully read each query and then answer that person honestly and thoughtfully.

Within the context of these constraints, we've been able to surprise ourselves creatively and have far richer, far more nuanced conversations with our users. Those conversations in turn enabled us to learn and respond to things we never could have otherwise.

We've had to invest a lot of time in defining our constraints and staying within them, but we've gotten so much back in return. People contact us nearly every day telling us how we can be better. They ask for more features, send us ideas, applaud the features we've gotten right and thoughtfully reply when we probe them further on their comments. They're rooting us on, so we take every person seriously, and they're taking us seriously back.

So what are some of the principles that guide your business and teams? What kind of "rules" are you establishing in your own interactions or companies that are helping unleash success and innovation within your market?