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Can Limitations Actually Free Your Organization?

Lately I've been writing about the issue of scarcity thinking in nonprofits and how a focus on limitations and barriers seems to hold back many organizations. Now I see that Garr Reynolds of Presentation Zen has written an excellent post on the value of limitations that I think is very applicable to nonprofits. In it, Garr argues that the rest of us have a thing or two to learn about limitations from design professionals:

"Using creativity and skill to solve a problem or design a message among a plethora of restrictions from the client, from the boss, etc. is old hat to designers. They live it. Daily. However, for the millions of non-designers with access to powerful design tools, the power and importance of constraints and limitations is not well understood. . .

What we can learn from professional designers is that (1) constrains and limitations are a powerful ally not an enemy, and (2) creating our own self-imposed constraints, limitations, and parameters is often fundamental to good, creative work."

Personally I find this advice hard to swallow at times, especially when I'm in the middle of writing a grant (as I am now) and I'm forced to comply with the requirements of the funders in putting the proposal together. I'd love to see the information they put in the RFP as design constraints that will encourage my creativity. Unfortunately I tend to see them as straitjackets and handcuffs.

Interestingly, it doesn't bother me that the funding is often not enough for the outcomes they are seeking.  What bothers me is that there's a tendency on the part of the funders to put needless constraints on the solution you can devise to achieve their outcomes. They basically behave as though they've already identified the solution and are just looking for someone who can implement it most efficiently for them.  I'm dying for the RFP that says "Here's the money we have, here's a basic idea of what we'd like to accomplish. Now give us your ideas--let your creativity go." But I don't think that will be happening anytime soon, at least not in the world where I'm operating.

Regardless, I do find that thinking more like a designer who sees constraints as creative challenges can be more freeing. At the very least, that approach challenges me to challenge myself, rather than giving up in despair. It also forces me to look at things differently because I'm not so bound up in the limitations. Not that I'm always able to come up with a creative solution, but at least I'm in a better mood about the work.

On a side note--Yes, I know I should have done some blogtipping now that it's the first of the month, but I don't think that will happen until the weekend when I'm finally finished with the mountain of work on my desk.  

Comments

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It's okay. :)

Michelle,

Great point. I think limitations help to avoid the danger of "misson creep" where we start to think beyond the project/issue we are trying to accomplish. By putting walls on certain areas we are able to keep the project in sight. I have to admit that I had to step back a moment to think this one through as I too chafe under those types of restrictions at times. But lately (maybe because I am feeling old) I have found a well defined project scope to be somewhat liberating just as you state.

Thanks.

Rallyfan, I definitely fight with myself on this one, though. You should have heard me complaining yesterday as we put the finishing touches on a grant application with so many restrictions I wanted to scream! Sometimes I'm great at giving advice, but not necessarily following it. :-)

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