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The Rules of Genius Rule #6: Frame problems tightly

There’s a widespread myth that genius needs a large canvas. Yet every creative person knows this to be untrue. Too much freedom can lead to mediocrity. Why? Because without boundaries there’s no incentive to break through them. A real genius has no difficulty redefining a brief or defying convention. It’s second nature. But give a creative person too much freedom, and you’ll get a final product that’s over-designed, over-worked, over-budget, and under-focused. The greatest gift you can give a genius is limitation, not license.

The basic principle is this: A tightly structured brief will generate energy; a wide-open one will drain it. When creative people get into trouble, it’s not because they can’t see the solution—it’s because they can’t see the problem. Here’s a formula for framing a challenge in a way that lets you clearly see it:

1. Write a problem statement. Summarize the challenge in a brief paragraph, then describe the most likely outcome if it’s not addressed.

2. List the constraints. Constraints are creative limitations imposed by the problem. Is there a funding limit? A time limit? A technological barrier? A political barrier? A business constraint? A brand constraint? A knowledge gap? Competitive hurdles? Limitations are important because they tighten the frame and point to solutions.

3. List the affordances. Affordances are creative possibilities that exist within the problem. While constraints close the door, affordances open a window. Constraints and affordances shape the space where new ideas can dance. What’s missing from the market? What are the capabilities can I call on? Who do I have on my team? How can the technology be advanced? What does the problem tell me? Inside every problem is a hidden solution.

4. Describe success. Your problem statement suggests the most likely outcome of doing nothing. Now describe the most likely outcome if your solution succeeds.

A problem well-framed is a problem half-solved.

Next week: Think in whole thoughts.
A complex problem is more like a movie than a snapshot.

The Rules of Genius is now a book with a bonus section called “How can I matter?” that includes 10 essential rules.  Buy here.

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