How does putting limitations around something boost innovation and learning? It may seem counterintuitive, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that humans respond well to having some constraint imposed upon them. The rapid creation and rollout of COVID-19 vaccines is a case in point, as a recent blog by Paul Taylorexplained: “One of the reasons for the rapid vaccine development is it had the tightest of tight briefs before it was deployed to multiple teams to solve.”

When the goal is crystal clear and the problem is really well defined, then the chances of success are much greater. As the innovative composer Igor Stravinsky said, “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self.” It’s something I notice in the After Action Reviews (AARs) I conduct too, that the constraints imposed by the process actually free people to be more creative.

How long?

Shelia, a legal professional and one of the recent graduates from our AAR Conductor Development Programme, shared a very honest opinion of what she thought prior to starting the course: “I could not believe that there would be ten hours of tuition to learn how to ask four questions! But now I realise this was just enough to get us started well”.

What Shelia learnt was that the success of every AAR depends as much on the psychological safety that the AAR Conductor creates and maintains during the AAR as it does on the questions themselves and that is what much of the course focuses on.

The effects of fencing

One of the ways that psychological safety created by the Conductor, supports such valuable learning is beautifully illustrated by a research project I came across recently, published by the American Society of Landscape Architects. The study was conducted to discover the effects of a fence around a playground on preschool children’s behaviour.  Teachers were to take their children to a local playground in which there was no fence during their normal playtime. The same group was to be taken to a comparable playground in which there was a defined border designated by a fence.

In the first scenario, the children remained huddled around their teacher, fearful of leaving her sight.  The second scenario exhibited drastically different results, with the children feeling free to explore within the given boundaries. The overwhelming conclusion was that with the limits of a fence, children felt safer to freely explore a playground.  Without a fence, the children were not able to see a given boundary or limit and thus were more reluctant to leave the caregiver.

Innovation benefits from restraints

A very similar thing is happening during an AAR.  The combination of the structure of the four questions, the AAR ground rules to set the expected behaviours and the AAR Conductor’s activity to maintain them, act as a boundary fence for the participants. Within this boundary, AAR participants’ sense of safety to share openly, listen fully and think creatively is able to grow.

During these challenging times, what are you doing to drive innovation and free up you and your teams’ thinking? Call us if you would like to discuss an idea for an After Action Review or try one of the ideas below.

Three ideas for creating limits to boost clarity

  1. Use the limits of a logic model to ensure your activities tie in closely with your desired outcomes and the impact you want to make.
  2. Limit yourself to 20 slides and 20 seconds per slide (Pecha Kucha) to explain your project to others and get really creative.
  3. When planning for any project or activity, classify each activity into essential and desirable columns. And then go further and reclassify essentials into absolutely essential and somewhat essential. Then you will see clearly what is most important.