Striking the Perfect Balance Between Creative Freedom and Realistic Limits

Four tips to help you foster innovative product development.

learn more about Nadia Goodman

By Nadia Goodman

Creative Dash

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

If you want to develop a truly innovative product the market has never seen, how do you empower your team to come up with original ideas? Your leadership, and the limits you set for your team, determine how creative they can be.

"Paradoxically, creativity thrives on the tension between freedom and constraint," says Brent Rosso, an organizational psychology professor at Montana State University who studies the balance between freedom and constraint in the product development process. "They're the yin and yang of creativity."

If you don't give your team enough constraints, they rehash hackneyed ideas. If you give them too many constraints, you stifle innovation. Effective creative teams, and the leaders who manage them, learn when to impose limits and when to give free rein.

To manage creative teams and foster innovation, try these four tips, based on Rosso's research:

1. Clearly outline the target your team needs to hit.
In order for a product development team to be creative, they need parameters around what they're supposed to create. "It is impossible to think outside of the box if you don't know which box you're in," Rosso says.

From the beginning, set clear guidelines about what the product should be able to do, which consumer needs and organizational goals should be met, or which intellectual property issues need to be considered. "These constraints are more likely to positively impact creativity because they help define and focus the creative challenge," Rosso says.

Related: How to Break the Mold and Be an Independent Thinker

2. Allow your team freedom to decide how they want to work.
Once you've explained what the end product needs to accomplish, let your team tackle the challenge any way they want. "No creator likes to be told how to do their work," Rosso says. "Doing so harms their intrinsic motivation and creativity."

Be upfront with your team about resource constraints, such as time, money, or staffing, but otherwise, don't limit their approach to completing the goal in any way. For example, you might give your team the budget and the time frame, but let them choose which tools or materials to use. "Provide the target to aim for, but don't tell them how to shoot," Rosso says.

3. Only impose genuine constraints.
Don't try to make your team more creative by giving them fewer resources than you could. Effective constraints are genuine. "Constraints that are perceived as inauthentic or strategic -- such as an aggressive time constraint that isn't genuine -- are either ignored or, worse, rebelled against," Rosso says.

Instead, lay out the project's real constraints, and use them as a way to motivate the team. "If you make constraints explicit and build anticipation of them, product development teams will be less defensive," Rosso says.

4. Encourage your team to create their own constraints.
To ensure greater creativity, focus on hiring great employees and pairing them in groups that work well together. "Teams with positive patterns of collaboration, communication, interpersonal relationships, leadership, and goal clarity are more likely to see and find freedom in constraint," Rosso says. As are teams embedded in a culture that supports experimentation and failure.

Strong teams are also better able to set their own constraints as they brainstorm ideas. "The most successful product development teams impose constraints on themselves," Rosso says.

Related: How to Inspire a Culture of Innovation

Nadia Goodman

Nadia Goodman is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY. She is a former editor at, where she wrote about the psychology of health and beauty. She earned a B.A. in English from Northwestern University and an M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University. Visit her website,

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