Are constraints key to a culture of freedom?

This isn’t a dig at American culture. I love America. But, a little over a month into my business trip to the States, I can’t help but notice that the land of the free seems to love constraints. Want to visit the beach? Permit required. Many neighbourhoods or local jurisdictions have laws that require homeowners to mow their lawn and keep it tidy. At least we’re free to tip as we please, yet staff are often on less than minimum wage until tips are factored in. So there’s no freedom there unless you want to be a jerk…what happened to liberty?

Of course, various rules keep people in check in all cultures. Nothing new there. But it fascinates me that a country famed for freedom puts so many restrictions and regulations. Constraints. We love to hate them. But counter-intuitively, are they key to being free? It’s what we at Interactive Workshops call ‘the empowerment paradox’.

Earlier this month, an email was leaked that Elon Musk allegedly sent to the exec staff of his Tesla workforce.

40 hours. In the office. How would we innovate otherwise? 

On the face of it (assuming the email really was sent by Musk) it plays out as Elon Musk the Villain, demanding his workers use an archaic (that’s circa 2019) form of working. Shouldn’t one of the world’s greatest innovators be championing a fully flexible or genius hybrid solution that millions of other companies would adopt copy as soon as they got wind of it? 

Yet, it could be that there’s something in this one constraint that supercharges his team. Maybe Tesla have data to show that team innovation is never better than with all employees working full time in person. Specific demands and clear direction are not necessarily indicators of poor leadership. Often this is vital to effective leadership. Real empowerment relies on it.

Most of us have considered what to do with that time we once spent commuting. What if, after much consideration and experimentation, we decide that it would be best for our workload and mental health to use it to travel to somewhere we can best collaborate with some colleagues? Even when there are strikes on the trains, jumping on a bike is an even healthier way to play it. We could even use the time to ourselves or to get some extra work done. Call it ‘commuting’. Elon Musk might be right. Maybe in-person work is a constraint we always needed to bring out our best innovation, collaboration and socialization.

Sometimes – even oftentimes – creative constraints are necessary for the best possible outcome.

Just see how our IW Studio reacts if one of our team submits a design brief with minimal information. “What’s the format? Follow our brand style or client brand guidelines? When is it needed by? Could it be a simple set of 10 slides rather than 30?” And I thought creative types always wanted freedom. But without the constraints, there’s no room to play. That ‘freedom’ would take them into dangerous area where time is wasted or deadlines are missed. The best playgrounds in the world have fences around them. 

I’ll continue to enjoy my time in the land of the ‘free’. And I’ll keep wondering… maybe, just maybe, the constraints are what’s liberating.