Harry Houdini in ChainsSometimes I meet a business that is really keen to innovate, and are prepared to be super open-minded. They say things like:

  • “We want to think out of the box.”
  • “Nothing should be off the table.”
  • “We are looking for a breakthrough business idea.”
  • “It could be something completely new to us; both in technology and market.”

They want to innovate expansively, without constraints.

My heart always sinks when I hear this. It usually means we are entering a very high risk innovation space.

But why? Surely, we should applaud businesses that have ambition; that want to turn things upside down and revolutionise a market?

Yes, of course. In brainstorming and creativity there are no stupid ideas, and we should open out as wide as possible in seeking interesting ideas, but we also must close down and select in order to make progress. Often the people who are most passionate about being open-minded are also open-ended with their innovation programmes.

The lack of constraints and limits makes the creation of a long list of ideas easier, and the delivery of successful innovation harder.

Problems of ‘no-limits’ innovation

If you are not constrained by:

  • Time
  • Resources
  • Alignment with strategy
  • Fit with technology
  • Knowledge of the market

Anything is possible, and nothing can be ruled out. That is a dangerous way to approach innovation.

This sort of ‘no-limits’ innovation thinking regularly leads to all sorts of problems:

  • Dither – why make a definitive decision when you can keep all your options open for longer?
  • Perfectionism – we believe that with a bit more time we can have a much better picture of the strengths and weaknesses of this idea.
  • Zombie projects – they are under-resourced and making no progress, but there is no appetite to kill them off because they might suddenly turn out to be great, and anyway the team/individual have put a lot of effort into this project and they might be hurt.
  • Scope drift – now we have got into the project there are some interesting side issues that might be worth following up.
  • Option overload – we don’t want to stop any line of enquiry so we keep everything live, then each option in turn fans out again to another series of interesting ideas, and we end up with a list of ideas and options far too big to cope with.
  • ‘Dolphin’ ideas – someone has a great idea that they think is not getting enough attention so it keeps surfacing over and over again.

It may seem like this is an exaggeration. Surely people don’t behave like this in reality? Unfortunately, it happens all the time. Opening out is fun, stimulating and exciting. Closing down means saying goodbye to some really cool ideas and facing the practical issues. There is a terrible temptation to keep saying yes and to avoid saying no.

Convergence is as important as divergence

Many innovation models emphasise the need to go wide in your initial search for ideas; to be divergent in your thinking. Lots of tools exist to help break out of existing patterns of thinking. Good innovation models also help you to aggressively reduce your long list to a few exciting and actionable ideas. To converge on to a small number of options. The process then repeats for each of the options that has survived the first cull as you explore them in more depth. After each divergent and creative phase, there needs to be a convergent selection phase.

The ‘Double Diamond’ model promoted by the Design Council is a good example.

Double Diamond Innovtion Model

Constraints help convergence

Limits, constraints and barriers all help with convergence and give shape and focus to the innovation process.

‘When you are a journalist you are taught very quickly that there is no such thing as writers’ block, because there will be some unsympathetic bloke screaming in your earhole to – “get the bloody thing written!”.’

Time pressures are an effective way to focus innovation and creativity. Deadlines provide a goal that a team can work towards.

The author Terry Pratchett talked about the valuable lessons he learned from the time pressures experienced as a journalist [1]:

‘When you are a journalist you are taught very quickly that there is no such thing as writers’ block, because there will be some unsympathetic bloke screaming in your earhole to – “get the bloody thing written!”.’

Limits on materials or technologies can also help to drive innovation.

I once asked a perfumer in a fragrance company what was the most difficult and the most satisfying type of creative brief to work on. He thought for a while and then said that a brief for a fine fragrance for a famous brand name looked the most exciting, and was certainly the most prestigious. But because there were no cost constraints you could choose from over 5000 potential ingredients, and it was really hard to find somewhere to start. A completely blank sheet of paper was difficult to deal with. On the other hand, perfuming a toilet rim block meant your palette was severely restricted. You had to be tight on costs and could only use ingredients that were stable in a harsh chemical environment. He felt that the more mundane challenge of perfuming the toilet block brought the best innovation out of him. It was harder to do, but easier to make progress and find a good solution.

Often there are multiple constraints.

The crew of Apollo 13 had to retreat to the Lunar Module to save power when the lunar mission was aborted after the explosion in the oxygen tank. The Lunar Module was supposed to support two people for 36 hours, not three for 96 hours, and CO2 started to build up dangerously. The only replacement scrubbers available were in the Command Module, but they did not fit the units in the Lunar Module. So the engineers on Earth had to come up with a jury-rigged system using only materials they had on Apollo 13, which could be put together by the crew, and do it before the crew lost consciousness.

A great example of innovation under severe time and resource constraints, and for me one of the most exciting scenes in the film.

If you have no constraints – find some quickly!

If you and your team feel that there are no limits in your innovation programme, you need to find some quickly.

Fortunately, in most situations there are constraints; they just may be implicit rather than explicit. Hauling those implicit constraints into the light and making them part of your innovation process is vital. Whilst they remain implicit they are not doing their job and you can’t even challenge them if they are wrong or not relevant.

  • There will be limits on the time and resources you can devote to developing a new product or service.
  • Legal and regulatory boundaries you can’t overstep.
  • Understanding of what the customers will value.
  • Potential cost structure and likely market price.
  • Accessible routes to market.
  • Accessible technical and production capabilities.

Make these and other constraints part of your thinking. They will:

  • Help you select the best ideas to develop and to converge on likely solutions.
  • Force you focus attention on overcoming the most important problems.
  • Push you to consider radical solutions and to ‘think out of the box’ in a purposeful rather than indulgent way.
  • Allow you to challenge the constraints that are out of date, irrelevant, or you can go around.

Don’t moan about constraints; use them and celebrate them.

[1] Terry Pratchett: Back In Black, BBC, 2017

The Power of Limits in Innovation
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