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How to flourish through constraints

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Gave Lindo

If you think about how creativity is changing in the 21st century, it’s impossible not to think about social media and platforms like TikTok, YouTube and Instagram. After many years with the CBC in 2020 I joined the leadership team at TikTok. Even before I joined the company, it was known for changing the way that storytelling and content have evolved in recent years. And I think I know why it has been such an unbridled success with users.

But first, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to start by taking us back in time to 1957. That’s the year when one of the greatest children’s books of all time was created — The Cat in the Hat by Theodor Seuss Geisel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss.

One reason why this publication was so interesting was that it only used 226 words in the entire book. Despite its limited vocabulary, the book was incredibly successful — and it remains so today. Like myself, I’m sure many readers shared it as children and went on to read it with their own children.

Shortly after the book was published, Bennett Cerf, the then-publisher and founder of Random House, had an idea. He made a bet with Geisel that he could not follow up The Cat in the Hat with an equally successful book using an even smaller vocabulary: 50 words. Unfazed, Geisel accepted the challenge. For a full year, he sequestered himself at his studio and selected the 50 words that he would use over and over to tell an engaging story. The result, as some of you might have guessed, was Green Eggs and Ham, which surpassed The Cat in the Hat in terms of its success and went on to become Dr. Seuss’ most popular book. Today, it has been adapted into every format imaginable, from TV to film to video games, and it serves as an enduring legacy of the power of constraints in creativity.

In the business world, constraints are usually thought of as a negative aspect of a project. But as Dr. Seuss proved, they can also be harnessed to unlock creative energy. I myself have witnessed the power of constraints at TikTok — and how its early decision to self-impose a significant constraint on the platform became the catalyst for solving some of the traditional hurdles for content creators.

In its early days, TikTok butted heads with three particular constraints that have traditionally been seen as deal breakers for successful content platforms, both traditional or contemporary. Before TikTok emerged in 2016, if you wanted to create a successful television program, streaming service or entertainment platform of any kind, these were three things your project required. First, you needed star power. You had to involve celebrities or sports figures with name recognition who were capable of drawing a crowd.

Second, you needed official gatekeepers for your project — people who could curate its content. In the realm of content creation, these are the people who have historically made all the decisions about who gets to create content and which projects get produced.

And third, if you managed to jump through the first two hoops, you needed access to distributors of premium content to help you find an audience. Today, most of us subscribe to streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Crave. Each has set out to offer end-users the best of the best from a range of content genres. It’s become a bit like an arms race to see who can offer the most premium content possible.

When TikTok launched, it had none of these things.

So, how was it able to succeed? In his book A Beautiful Constraint, Adam Morgan writes: “A constraint should be regarded as a stimulus for positive change. We can choose to use it as an impetus to explore something new and arrive at a breakthrough.” I love that quote, and I would argue that TikTok’s singular decision to self-impose a constraint in terms of video length is the core reason for its success.

Traditionally, the content we were used to came in 30-, 60- or 90-minute formats. That has been the typical duration of everything from the news to television series and movies. But as you can imagine, producing content at that length is extremely expensive. When TikTok first launched, users couldn’t create or upload anything longer than 15 seconds in length. And in many cases, the videos were much shorter than that.

By limiting the length of its videos to 15 seconds, TikTok was able to democratize content creation and vastly expand the number of people who could participate in it. I would argue that everyone reading this article has a good 15 seconds of engaging content in them — but only a few would be able to create an hour or 90 minutes’ worth.

The significance of TikTok’s decision cannot be underestimated. At a time when there was plenty of bandwidth and cloud storage capability, limiting video length to 15 seconds might have seemed unwise. But this bold decision became the catalyst that enabled everyone out there to feel like they could participate in content creation.

The 15-second rule also helped the platform address the three traditional constraints that I mentioned earlier. The first was the requirement to have some level of star power or celebrity involved. In its early days, pretty much nobody was interested in participating on TikTok — no celebrities or sports stars whatsoever. And without those big names on the platform, it might have seemed that there was no hope for it to be successful. But precisely because of the 15-second format, TikTok was able to draw in a huge number of everyday people, who could experiment in a very low-friction way to tell stories, create memories, share joy, inform and educate.

To this day, being a highly authentic and relatable form of storytelling is the defining feature of the platform. I would argue that TikTok offers a level of authenticity that is virtually impossible to replicate on other platforms. It’s not just about the length of the videos; it’s about the enthusiasm of people who want to create content and the endless appetite of those who consume it. Just imagine if the initial decision was to rely on celebrities. Authenticity could never have emerged as a central feature of the platform.

In many cases, the most creative solutions can only emerge from a constraint-filled environment.

The second constraint for traditional content creators was the need for gatekeepers to be involved. In the traditional storytelling model, we had film studios, TV networks and streaming services hunting for content. These people basically decided who could and could not create content.

What’s so interesting about TikTok is that because the barriers to creation were so low, copious amounts of content were created. And that enabled an algorithm to quickly learn which content would resonate with each user — which only expanded the platform’s popularity. Say you needed to entertain yourself for an hour while waiting for a delayed flight to board. If you were to watch a film on Netflix for an hour, what would the back-end of its system learn about your content preferences? It would definitely take time before your preferences became evident. Not so with TikTok, where multiple videos are watched in each viewing session.

The third traditional constraint for content creators was the need to connect with a premium content provider. With TikTok, that isn’t necessary. If you allow more and more people to participate in content creation, a lot of really interesting things happen. Over time, we have seen many ‘subcultures’ of content emerge on the platform. Readers may have heard of spinoffs like WitchTok (a thriving community of users who share a fascination with magic and witchcraft), PlantTok (for indoor plant fanatics), CleanTok (for those who find cleaning therapeutic) and endless others that focus on a particular niche. Micro communities are emerging that we never imagined would be of interest to people.

As you work to bring more creativity and innovation to your own workplace, it may be tempting to try to remove the constraints you face by throwing money and resources at the problem. My message for you is this: Stop to consider that in many cases, the most creative solutions to our problems can only emerge from a constraint-filled environment. Businesspeople should start to think about creativity as “a response to an environment with limited resources.” I think Orson Welles said it best when he said, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitation.”

So, whether you are faced with financial constraints in your business or time constraints in your personal life, as indicated herein, those constraints just might be the fuel required to unlock creativity, innovation and solutions. Put those constraints to work for you and you can discover opportunities you never imagined. If Dr. Seuss could do it, so can we.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of the Rotman Management Magazine. Subscribe now for the latest thinking on leadership and innovation. 

Gave Lindo (MBA ‘07) is the head of content programming for North America at TikTok.