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Self-imposed constraints are our best hope to transform ourselves and collectively transform our world

The power of constraints - What do you not want to go back to?

At ThinkPlace, we think a lot about paradigms: set of beliefs and values widely held across societies around how systems work. These paradigms are often built around tradition, the path of least resistance, what has worked in the past, and the will of those in power, and they are the basis of how our systems form.

Shifting paradigms offer the greatest opportunity to transform a system, yet the deep-seated and widespread nature of these beliefs can often make them seem like immovable truths that are impossible to uproot.

However, as Donella Meadows puts it, “there’s nothing physical or expensive or slow in the process of paradigm change. In a single individual it can happen in a millisecond. All it takes is a click in the mind, a falling of scales from the eyes, a new way of seeing.” 


Why does that matter right now? 

We are entering a period of monumental societal resistance. Over the past months, we have begun to question the nature of our paradigms - especially around the way we work, why we work, how we define progress, and the role of global governance - due to the massive external constraints caused by this pandemic. We risk returning to the status quo if we do not continue to be purposeful and thoughtful in what we do and why we do it.

As a designer, I am a huge believer in the power of constraints to drive creativity and innovation. Rarely pleasing at the start, and undoubtedly very painful in this current situation, constraints nonetheless enable humans to do their best work. They provide focus, clarity, and the force to generate creative solutions to solve real problems. When framed and perceived appropriately, constraints can reset established thinking.

We are currently sitting in a window of opportunity; an interesting combination of scale, rigidity and immediacy that has sparked extraordinary action globally.

In a matter of months, corporations have shifted to entirely remote work, companies are humanising and embracing social purpose and governments are showing that we can actually make a dent in homelessness. All massive shifts that we thought would take 5-10 more years.

Contrast this with climate change, a truly unprecedented constraint, that is imminent but lacks the tangibility and immediacy of a pandemic response. For us to innovate, adapt and step up, we need to add self-imposed constraints to our world and the way we think much before the threat is at our doorstep. 


So, where does this leave us? 

In New Zealand, the sound of construction has started to fill the air and cars have taken back the streets. We are very fortunate to be currently trending towards control of the virus within our borders and return to a more ‘normal’ way of being. The constraints are loosening, which in itself is not a bad thing. This was the goal from the outset and why we all did our part to limit the spread.

As we enter the long tail of the pandemic, it is crucial to remember not just what we will regain, individually and as a society, but also that which we do not want to go back to.

This is an opportunity to think creatively in the face of extreme limitations and address deep-rooted paradigms. It’s a time to question accepted ways of thinking and being and transform our systems to be fit for now and the future. It is entirely possible, and we are currently proving that. The only thing that could stop us taking this further will be ourselves. 

As we will begin to remove constraints from our lives, the temptation to revert to old ways will be overwhelming. Our memories will fade quicker than we expect. It is easier to default to what is known and comforting - returning to our offices, activities, events and the malls. But is it the best choice if you believe in systems and a way of living for an equitable and sustainable future?

Self-imposed constraints are our best hope to transform ourselves and collectively transform our world.

At ThinkPlace New Zealand, we have become a closer team, using the restrictions as an opportunity to collectively redefine a new way of working and permanently changing our practices for the better.

Beyond the benefits of travelling significantly less and using way less paper, forced remote working is levelling the playing field in many ways both internally and externally. We have innovated to create compelling experiences to connect people more deeply across the world. Power dynamics have been upset for the better and introverts now have a stronger voice. We aim to maximise inclusion and equity in all that we do. The digital realm is no exception.

Our remote working learnings and processes are here to stay and will enable us to deliver more value with our partners and a create a more human workplace. Embracing opportunity in disorder is a hallmark of ThinkPlace and by framing constraints as motivating challenges, we help to drive breakthrough change.  


Going forward

By using limitations to expand our thinking, this pandemic has proved beyond doubt that progress for people and planet is possible. It was never about the time, but just our willingness to step up.

We must impose the right kind of constraints on ourselves, before the world does it for us. We should not let the learnings of this time slip through our fingers as we transition out of full lockdown.

Reflect on what’s important to you and impose consequential constraints that align with those values to innovate a better future for yourself, your family and everyone. What are you not willing to go back to?

A societal pause is an extremely rare opportunity to reboot and reimagine our lives. Carry this gift with you for as long as you can. It came at a great cost and it is one we hope not to receive again any time soon. 

Most of us will emerge from the lockdown periods brimming with new possibilities. At ThinkPlace, helping our clients make great choices is business as usual.

If you need help, reach out to us. We’ve rapidly adapted our practice to new ways of working when we can’t meet face to face. We look forward to joining you in the new future!

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