Our creativity is often determined by how actively engaged and focused we are. Sometimes our focus is dictated by the constraints, or rules, we apply to it.
The more we focus, the more we create. The more we create the more we enjoy our work. And the more enjoyable, expedient, and efficient an experience is, the more meaning we give it. And here's the thing: the simplest rules create the most effective experience.
Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham did not set out to launch a global wave of creativity. They were simply trying figure out how to make a go of Super Deluxe, a tiny basement venue they owned in Tokyo that wasn't doing very well. On a lark they decided to invite some architect colleagues over to spend an evening sharing their work and engaging in a bit of pecha kucha (peh-CHAHK-chah), a Japanese phrase meaning "chitchat."
There was one rule, though: You had to give a formal presentation consisting of 20 slides, each shown for exactly 20 seconds. As Mark and Astrid tell it, the rationale behind the rule was simple: "Give a microphone and some images to an architect—or most creative people for that matter—and they'll go on forever! Give PowerPoint to anyone else and they have the same problem."
The first night went so well that they planned another for the next month, dubbing it PechaKucha Night. PechaKucha Night soon became a popular monthly event, and it wasn't long before the problem of what to do with Super Deluxe was no longer an issue.
Word began to spread beyond Tokyo, and after three years and 30 events, PechaKucha Nights began cropping up in other cities. By 2010, PechaKucha Night had gone viral to over 230 cities all across the world, with new cities coming on board every few days.
When you go to a PechaKucha Night—I've been to several and participated in two—you're struck by the creative energy flowing through the people and the place. What I find so interesting about the Pecha Kucha phenomenon is how such a simple concept—a single, non-negotiable rule that invokes a single constraint—can create such an engaging experience.
It's a counterintuitive idea, but one behind some of the most effective experiences in the world.
Take "shared space" urban design, for example. In shared space design, motor vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists all share the road equally, with the only rule being "all due respect to the most vulnerable." Shared space design is void of nearly all traditional traffic controls, signs and lights. Curbs have been removed, asphalt replaced with red brick, and there are fountains and trees and café seating right where you think you should drive. It's completely ambiguous. You have no choice but to slow down and think, but keep moving.
Result? Twice the fun and flow with half the accidents. Shared space design began as an experiment in small European towns that didn't have a budget for traditional traffic controls at high-volume intersections, but has spread to metropolitan cities. Visitors to the 2012 Olympic Games enjoyed the shared space redesign—a three-year, multimillion dollar project—of London's cultural mecca, Exhibition Road.
Most people by now know about the Netflix vacation policy, which is essentially to have no policy. Employees simply take as much time off as they want, whenever they want. No one tracks vacation days. Compare that to conventional rules and policies, which usually result in people being forced to use their vacation or work the system to get paid for time not taken.
The power of this kind of self-organization suggests that creativity and innovation might best be achieved not through rigid hierarchy and central controls, but from one or two vital agreements. These agreements are often implicit, that everyone understands and is accountable for, yet that are left open to individual interpretation and variation. The limits of the rule are set by social context.
The quote by Netflix vice president Steve Swasey sums it up quite nicely:
Focusing on the rules of any experience gives rise to a different way of thinking. You will begin to search for natural and self-organizing patterns of human behavior. Ask how to exploit those patterns for good, rather than just trying to control them. The most effective experiences might best be achieved but by one or two simple rules.
Simple rules can often emerge from the right context and do not always need not be stated to be understood by all, yet can produce the highest levels of participation.
In other words: keep the simplest rules, kill the others.
How about you?
How have rules helped your creativity?
Matthew E. May is the author of, most recently, Winning The Brain Game: Fixing the 7 Fatal Flaws of Thinking.