Constraints foster innovation


When it comes to innovation one of the most common associations to the term is to think outside the box and set your inner child free. While brainstorming completely without boundaries may produce some entertaining ideas, the usefulness of those ideas is often limited. Just look at how small startups are able to challenge behemoths corporations in incumbent industries, it is definitely not due to a limitless supply of resources, but rather the opposite.

As an example, incumbent banks used to look at the branch networks as invaluable assets that could never be out-competed. Challenger banks, on the other hand, did not have access to a vast network of physical presence and had to provide an unprecedented digital user experience compared to brick and mortar peers. Now that banking is leaving the physical world for good, digital-only banks have a significant competitive advantage over incumbents. Not only due to less technical debt from a light-weight IT architecture, but also without the physical debt of expensive branches and physical presence.

Innovation comes from hard work and creativity, and the latter thrive on fewer resources rather than more. Don’t over-water your plants and don’t over-resource your innovation. Rather you should narrow down and focus the mission, give tight deadlines and limited resources. Instead of encouraging everyone to think outside the box, pick the right people and place them in the box and a true innovator will thrive on the challenge and find surprising, new and perhaps revolutionary ways out of the box.

Either you innovate through connecting existing concepts or components like connecting datasets through open APIs or rely on blank page creativity, rules or constraints are essential to spark creativity.

Take the artwork of Jackson Pollock as an example, while it may seem random and arbitrary at first sight, his paintings follow mathematical patterns known as fractals, capturing an inherent and subconscious sense of aesthetics resembling what we see in nature.

Where Jackson Pollock chose to let his dripping follow a strict mathematical pattern, musicians like Django Reinhart and Black Sabbath guitarist, Tommy Iommi had no choice but to overcome their physical constraints. Despite suffering from paralysis in two of his fingers from a burn accident, Django Reinhardt refused to put down his guitar and created his own revolutionary playing style. Tommy Iommi lost the tips of the middle and ring fingers of his right hand in an industrial accident, but drew inspiration from Django Reinhardt’s story and went on to continue playing and creating every conceivable riff in heavy metal history (seriously, every metal riff ever made are just variations of that of early Black Sabbath played in just different tempo or key).

Whether they are limits on space, time, money or other resources, constraints can improve our agility through rapid feedback due to visible consequences of every desiscion. As a comparison, author Daniel Coyle claims that skateboarders are some of the quickest learners in the world because they receive incredibly fast and useful feedback — every action, every move they make has an immediate consequence.

Attempting to innovate without boundaries overwhelms people with options and ignores established practices. Take agile programming, a practice that has been shown to enhance innovation. Without guidelines to structure the interactions, members of a complex organization or ecosystem struggle to coordinate their innovative activities. At the same time challenging established truths while sticking to the constraints or guidelines is perhaps one of the hardest balancing acts when it comes to innovation, and only the best innovators know which rules to bend and which to obey.

Another benefit of constraining innovation is simplification. One of the foremost killers of what would have been good products and services as well as endless development cycles is incumbent organizations inherent ability to overthink and thus creating unnecessary complexity.

However, setting constraints is no magical shortcut to innovating on a budget.

There needs to be a clear mission that is communicated and adopted across the organization. Innovation is not for everyone. It requires world-class talent and feeds on inner motivation rather than an exchange between effort and salary. While constraints play a big part in fostering innovation, innovators must be given sufficient resources in order to put their knowledge into action.

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