In the Jaws of constraints

Steven Spielberg sitting on the mechanical shark from Jaws (Louis Goldman/AMPAS)

Jaws is one of my favorite films. It scared the living daylights out of me as a kid. The music, that little boat that crumbles to pieces, Captain Quint. Epic.

Jaws was also the first film to surge past the $100-million box-office mark.

Yet for a movie about a shark, you really don’t see the shark that much. Director Steven Spielberg didn’t intend for it to be that way.

During the making of the film, the crew couldn’t get the mechanical shark to work. It was wrought with technical problems and never worked the way Spielberg wanted it to.

This was a huge disappointment to the young Spielberg. After all, how the heck can you make a movie about a shark without a shark?

They had to figure out how to tell the story without their main character.

To hide the mechanical shark, Spielberg and company took the approach of “what you don’’t see is scarier than what you do see”. This approach made all the difference. And as they say, the rest is history.

Today I heard Andy Murray talk about how constraints lead to breakthroughs in creativity. The Jaws example is a powerful testament to this idea. The constraint was not obvious or intentional at first. Had the shark worked, the film may very well have flopped. Yet because of this challenging constraint, they figured out a way to tell the story in a much richer way.

When we think about being “creative,” we often think of half-day brainstorming sessions where there are no bad ideas and every idea under the sun is up for consideration. The counterintuitive truth here is that the most creative ideas come as a result of having constraints, not from an absence of them.

So the next time you’re trying to solve a problem, try putting a constraint around it. Maybe it’s a time constraint: “I must come up with a solution in the next 30 minutes.” Or a people constraint: “We’re going to solve this with only two people.” Or maybe it’s a resource constraint: “Using only the tools we currently have, we’re going to figure out a creative solution.”

“Where resources are plentiful (i.e. no constraints), you will find very little creativity. Where resources are scarce (i.e. many constraints), you will find an abundance of creativity.” – Andy Murray