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The Joy of Constraints in Business

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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.

I was fortunate to end up spending a handful of years leading the New York office of IDEO, a design and innovation firm. I tried to understand the creative process and the monumental yet simple lesson I learned was creativity loves constraints.

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Creative thinkers will say 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 a person more creative? With a set of guidelines to govern how to design an offering and make decisions, you can unleash more creativity. Constraints are often advantages in disguise -- edges that encourage you to focus and go further, faster.

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

Entrepreneurs are often wondering how to go about creating something new and to unleash the creativity and innovation capacity of their teams.

The answer is simple: Set some constraints.

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A particularly inspiring (and process-driven) entrepreneur I met explained the process like this: "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."

In recent years as I built my company Doorsteps with members of my team, I knew it couldn't be everything to everyone. We had to decide what we valued and how those principles would guide our business decisions. From the outset, we believed that Doorsteps' mission was to make the process of buying a home more human and accessible. That simple idea -- a constraint, really -- forced us to change our behavior in a million different ways from the product, service and business perspective.

Take dealing with customer feedback. While many companies go above and beyond on the customer service side, some are stuck in the Stone Age. Conventional wisdom says that as a company becomes bigger and more mature, it should increasingly rely on templates to automatically respond to queries. But that doesn't seem very human and being delightful and human are a key principle of my company.

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Here are three guidelines, culled from my experience, for dealing with questions, concerns or suggestions from customers.

1. Be thankful when someone writes -- for any reason. Every customer has something valuable to teach and his or her correspondence is a lucky thing. Feedback is really a gift.

2. Be responsive to every request or question within 24 hours -- and ideally within 5 minutes.

3. Be thoughtful and take the time needed to give a unique, smart reply. Skip the automated answer and legalese. Carefully read each query and then answer that person honestly and thoughtfully. Your customers will take your company seriously in return.

Within the context of such constraints, it's possible to respond creatively and have a rich, nuanced conversation with customers. Those conversations can in turn enable a company to learn and respond to things that might not have come up otherwise.

Invest time in defining your company's constraints and staying within them. You may find that you'll receive much in return. People will contact the company every day suggesting possible improvements. They may ask for more product features, send ideas, applaud the features that they think the company does right and thoughtfully reply when probed further about their comments. They'll root you on.

What are some of the principles that guide your business and teams? What kind of rules have you established for your company's interactions that are helping unleash success and innovation?

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