Innovation…in the bamboo forest?

Photo of a bamboo ForestWhen we bought our first home, my husband and I were warned about the bamboo growing on our back hillside. Friends told us that the bamboo was invasive, that it would eventually send shoots all over our yard. Unfortunately, they were right. My husband and I spent many weekends digging trenches to prevent the bamboo from spreading, pulling up the shoots, and silently cursing the person who had planted it.

Yet, we stopped cursing it when we realized the bamboo fueled our children’s creativity. Once our kids were old enough to play outside on their own, they discovered the hillside and started calling it the “bamboo forest.” It wasn’t very large, but in their minds it had all the elements of a forest – tall growth, a blanket of leaves, and a magical element that unleashed their imaginations. They spent hours in the bamboo, building forts from fallen branches and leaves and having all kinds of fun.

We sold that house many years ago, and my kids, now teens, have fond memories of the bamboo. I was reminded of it just the other day when I heard my son and some friends talking about houses they used to live in. In his now deep voice, my son enthusiastically described the bamboo and the fun he and his sister had there. In hindsight, I’m happy that the previous owners planted it. It provided a constrained space perfect for inventing imaginary worlds. Our kids didn’t need a special toy or after-school activity to teach them how to be creative.

Creativity and constraints go hand-in-hand in the business world as well. In her Harvard Business Review Blog titled “Why Innovators Love Constraints,” Whitney Johnson wrote:

“Our perceived limitations may give us direction on where we might play, or want to play. Indeed, if we will let them, constraints can (and will) drive us to disruption.” 

Designers also understand the power of limits. If things are too open-ended, or if you have too many tools at your disposal, innovation can’t start, or is hampered. A few years back, Scott Dadich, the Creative Director of Wired Magazine, wrote in “Design Under Constraint: How Limits Boost Creativity“:

“In fact, the worst thing a designer can hear is an offhand ‘Just do whatever you want.’ That’s because designers understand the power of limits. Constraint offers an unparalleled opportunity for growth and innovation.”

Leaders and parents alike, do you have a bamboo forest to encourage innovation? Please share it in the comments. I’d like to hear from you!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

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