Constraints Breed Creativity

These are my slides/notes from a First Opinion company all hands presentation I gave in February 2016


What do you think of when you think of constraints?

Buy a tiny house they'll save so much money they said

Maybe you think of this?


Or this?

look at all these floating things above my head, I'm creative

I think of creativity, because constraints breed creativity.


Look no further than music


12 notes, that's all you get! These 12 notes give us everything from Beethoven's 5th symphony to Hanson's MMMBop, and everything in between. They all use the same set of 12 notes


Another example...

LEGOS!!!!! Simple lego bricks like this…

Like the giving tree, he gave all so I could finish my yellow Lego schoolbus

Give us things like this...


or this...

I can almost hear the Full House theme in my head

And, of course, because we’re in San Francisco, I couldn't resist this last example.

Any other examples you can think of where constraints breed creativity?


So what happens when you don't have constraints?


Star Wars, 1977, the original. $11 million dollars with a 94% rotten tomatoes score.

Still one of the greatest movie posters of all time

Star Wars Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace. The very definition of no constraints. George Lucas had complete control, from script and casting all the way down the line to post processing.

$115 million dollars, 56% on rotten tomatoes.


There are no constraints on the human mind, no walls around the human spirit, no barriers to our progress except those we ourselves erect.

-Ronald Reagan

So why do we set deadlines? And pare down feature sets? And don't just hire more developers and designers and product people? Because we are, to some extent, erecting constraints to increase our creativity and productivity as a company.

From The Inmates are Running the Asylum:

In the 1980s and 1990s, Royal Farros was the vice president of development for T/ Maker, a small but influential software company. He says, "A lot of us set deadlines that we knew were impossible, enough so to qualify for one of those Parkinson's Law corollaries. 'The time it will take to finish a programming project is twice as long as the time you've allotted for it.' I had a strong belief that if you set a deadline for, say, six months, it would take a year. So, if you had to have something in two years, set the deadline for one year. Bonehead sandbagging, but it always worked."

I always kept a spare bowl ready but my Goldfish never did this, not once

Below is an excerpt from when we launched First Opinion

We released our first real public version to the app store right before Thanksgiving, which in retrospect might not have been the best idea since most of us left on vacation immediately after. McKay wanted to be very hands on with the matching in the first release. ... So when a new user signed up, McKay would get a notification, he would look over their details and decide which doctor would be right for them.

And since I was going to be visiting my wife's family, I wanted to make sure those matching notifications were rock solid, because if McKay wasn't getting notified, the user wasn't getting matched with a doctor. So I rigged the server to send an email, a text message, and a push notification for each new user that signed up.

Over the next couple of days, First Opinion steadily climbed the app store rankings, moving into the top five apps in the medical category, and McKay's phone blew up with notifications, three at a time, to the point where he couldn't get any sleep because his phone was buzzing every few minutes ... On the flip side, each of our doctors was getting inundated with tons of new users every hour, all with a question or two to ask.

During this time, we were operating under the gun, as we were working to reconcile our growth with the amount of doctors we didn't have (we launched with only a few doctors but gained thousands of users in those first couple of days).

But as we scrambled to handle the load we figured out some incredible features of our Doctor application that helped our doctors manage the load, these are features we still use to this day, but they were created while we were working under intense pressure (which is a constraint) to handle our user load with the few doctors we had at the time.


He told me a story of how Larry Ellison actually got efficiencies from teams. If a team wasn't productive, he'd come every couple of weeks and say, "let me help you out." What did he do? He took away another person until the team started shipping…

I'm Closing with this quote because I think it perfectly encapsulates why we need constraints.

Supplemental Material

A few months after I gave this presentation, this tweet came through my stream, which I think is relevant...

Road Runner and Coyote

I also got pointed to these Road Runner and Coyote Rules, as recorded by Jason Kottke in 2012:

  1. The Road Runner cannot harm the Coyote except by going "meep, meep."
  2. No outside force can harm the Coyote -- only his own ineptitude or the failure of Acme products. Trains and trucks were the exception from time to time.
  3. The Coyote could stop anytime -- if he were not a fanatic.
  4. No dialogue ever, except "meep, meep" and yowling in pain.
  5. The Road Runner must stay on the road -- for no other reason than that he's a roadrunner.
  6. All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters -- the southwest American desert.
  7. All tools, weapons, or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation.
  8. Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote's greatest enemy.
  9. The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.
  10. The audience's sympathy must remain with the Coyote.
  11. The Coyote is not allowed to catch or eat the Road Runner.

And while the rules might not have actually existed, the cartoons--of which there are 48 shorts, a half-hour special, and one full length movie--follow them pretty closely. 11 rules, ~450 minutes of entertainment.


One of my coworkers sent me this article after I gave this presentation, one library decided to stop sending another library papyrus, so the other library invented parchment (emphasis mine):

One of the Ptolemies’ most drastic schemes to strike down the Library of Pergamum was the sudden cut of its trade of papyrus with the city of Pergamon. The Ptolemies hoped that if the main component of books was limited and hard to obtain, it would prevent the Library of Pergamum’s collection from growing. However, Pergamon came up with an alternative. Roman writer and scholar Marcus Terrentius Varro documented the event: “the rivalry about libraries between king Ptolemy and king Eumenes, Ptolemy stopped the export of papyrus … and so the Pergamenes invented parchment.

While it’s not possible for Pergamon to have invented parchment since scriptures on stretched leather have been found earlier in the east, the lack of papyrus may have pushed the king to expand the use and development of leather as a writing material, Coqueugniot says. The word for parchment in Latin, “pergamīnum” literally translates to “the sheets of Pergamum,” she says.

Blaise Pascal

This feels like something about constraints but I'm not sure what, I'm including it though because why not? And the quote has a fun attribution history:

I wrote you a long letter because I didn't have time to write you a short letter

My favorite alternative quote is the Woodrow Wilson one on giving speeches from 1918:

“That depends on the length of the speech,” answered the President. “If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.”