Movement is vital to living systems. Movement allows feedback, which corrects imbalances.
Paradoxically, productive movement is created by constraining movement. Block movement in one direction and it becomes stronger in another direction. Constraints channel movement, creating flow.
Creative constraints (scope, requirements, deadlines, etc.) tend to amplify creativity. Like a beaver’s dam diverting a river, constraints divert creative energy to previously inaccessible places.
We see the interplay between movement and constraint in our bodies. We have soft, flexible flesh which can move in many directions and hard, rigid bones which structure this movement. One or the other on its own would be useless; the interplay creates the versatility.
We also use this principle in design. We constrain the possible movements of an object until the remaining degrees of freedom are the useful ones. For example, the levered doorknob is a single degree of freedom which suggests how to use it. Once turned, this unlocks a new degree of freedom to rotate the door on its hinge. All the other degrees of freedom (lifting the door up, pulling out the doorknob, etc.) have been constrained away, allowing the design of the object to inform its usage.
If we are clever in providing only useful degrees of freedom to channel energy, we can design objects of great versatility. For example, a bike’s handlebars provide a single degree of freedom. This constraint channels the human power via the pedals to create a rich space of mobility.
Stewart Brand explains the spectrum between movement and constraint as the fast and slow parts of a system:
The combination of fast and slow components makes the system resilient, along with the way the differently paced parts affect each other. Fast learns, slow remembers. Fast proposes, slow disposes. Fast is discontinuous, slow is continuous. Fast and small instructs slow and big by accrued innovation and occasional revolution. Slow and big controls small and fast by constraint and constancy. Fast gets all our attention, slow has all the power. All durable dynamic systems have this sort of structure; it is what makes them adaptable and robust.
So how can we use constraints to productively channel our energy? Here are a few ideas:
Use constraints to focus energy. A good example of this is Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats process for structuring a group discussion. He identifies six different modes of thought that people tend to use and makes them explicit (by naming the hat). Each “hat” is then worn in turn by the entire group at once. In this way the group mind is channeled in one direction at a time. Participants amplify each others’ ideas along each of these dimensions as each dimension becomes the group focus.
An intention is a constraint which aligns your thoughts toward a single focus. Think of a well-formed intention like a lens directing the sun’s rays. Like the quality of a lens, the quality of an intention is its form. How well does it direct energies from different directions toward its focus?
A concrete, external representation is the physical analog of an intention. An outline is a constraint on the finished essay, a to-do list is a constraint on the series of actions, a blueprint is a constraint on the final object. We build these representations to fix a big picture, which then lets us concentrate in turn on each detail without the rest of the project slipping away. Representations are useful as individual aids to channel our fluid mind and indispensable for channeling collaborative energy.
Use constraints to create clarity. Often as energies accumulate, they need to be organized into coherent streams. This is like taking a pool of flesh and adding the bones. Often this process takes the form of creating a new vocabulary. By creating a framework of names, ideas are constrained to relate to the vocabulary in explicit ways. Nebulous ideas crystalize onto these names.
Recognize that constraints create freedom. Sometimes we feel like we’re stuck, blocked in by obstacles. But if you’re alive then you have vital energy and it is going somewhere. Often just being aware of this gives you enough leverage to consciously change how your energy is flowing. Recognize that to get around constraints sometimes requires intentionally creating additional constraints to effectively channel your energy.
Recognize that constraints coevolve with movement. As the water flows, it alters the landscape, which in turn changes how the water flows. Sometimes the flow reinforces the constraint, deepening it. Sometimes a constraint outlives its usefulness and the flow erodes it away.