Thinking Inside the Box: How Constraints Can Help Drive Successful Innovation
As Orson Welles famously said: “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” But limitations play a vital role in far more than just art: constraints are at the heart of all kinds of innovation.
Consider this scenario: It’s fifth grade. You’re in art class. The teacher points to the closet, brimming with all kinds of art supplies, and offers no direction except “Make something.” Maybe you do — or maybe you exit class an hour later with nothing to show for your time. But, alternatively, what if the teacher handed you a 36” x 48” sheet of paper and instructed you to draw your bedroom from memory using only a red pen?
Each of the components in the latter scenario — the size of the paper, the writing utensil, the delineated image — represents a specific constraint. And together they create boundaries that aid the creator in producing better work.
On the surface, it seems paradoxical to suggest that limitations — of time, money, human and natural resources — can be in any way beneficial, but research suggests that such constraints are actually crucial to creative output.
Artist Phil Hansen sees limitation as a source of innovation. After having developed a tremble in his hand that he believed had destroyed his dreams of becoming an artist, he soon learned to “embrace the shake,” and in the process he discovered a new way of creating art that was “perpetual and unencumbered by results.”
While involuntary limitations such as Hansen’s shaking hand can certainly inspire innovative approaches, many others in the business world are calling for self-imposed constraints to boost productivity. Technology executive Marissa Mayer points out that constraints can actually speed up corporate progress. “By limiting how long we work on something or how many people work on it, we limit our investment,” she writes in a Bloomberg article in 2006. Limited investment means that more time and money can be spent on a wider variety of ideas, thereby increasing the chance of success.
Having constraints also forces people to take on more innovative strategies in order to accomplish an intended goal. Researchers at Cass Business School and Bocconi University conducted an experiment to investigate the effects of financial constraints on product development. They found that while unlimited options tend to stifle creativity, “constraints such as limiting the number of available materials or imposing a budget can actually lead to more creative solutions.”
In the tech world, there are some very big players with seemingly unending resources. While some believe those players will continue to dominate the future, their vast resources may actually end up working against them. Tech giants have spent billions of dollars in the past trying to solve some of the world’s biggest problems, often to no avail. Perhaps their failures weren’t due to a lack of resources, but to a lack of constraints.
At Aspire, we believe in the efficacy of constraints and we use a number of strategies to create appropriate boundaries that make us more efficient, more focused, and more apt to arrive at the best solutions. Here are a just a few ways we’re using constraints to stimulate innovation:
- Our tech pattern. All of our ventures must utilize cloud computing, sensor integration, mobile capabilities, and our A²I platform. Ensuring our venture companies use these four pillar technologies keeps us focused and ensures we’re taking full advantage of all of our resources, including our libraries of reusable components. Setting aside ideas that do not benefit from our tech pattern speeds up our progress and leads to better results.
- Our model. Once assessed, each of our ventures run through a venture development pipeline — a phase-based maturation model that begins with ideation and ends with the venture “leaving the nest.” Upon completion of each phase, we assess the venture’s progress using our built-in “go/no-go” process to determine whether or not to continue with the project. These checkpoints allow us to build in time constraints for each project, thus limiting our investment and limiting the risk of each venture.
- Our design strategy. For design and development, we use time-constrained processes like design sprints to help us arrive at the best solutions sooner. We also rigidly maintain specific design constraints unique to each project and it’s user stories — whether it’s limitations on scope, on technology, or on accessibility.
- Our focus. At Aspire, we believe not in incremental but transformational change. That’s why we limit our investments to companies that will have a positive impact on the world, with special emphasis in precision medicine. Supporting ventures that share our passion for changing the world hones our focus and creates more synergistic value between our ventures.
Whether self-imposed or externally manifest, constraints will always be present — it’s not a matter of how to get rid of them, but of how to convert them into advantages. Conventional wisdom advises us to think outside of the box — but if it’s the right size and shape, why should we waste energy and resources thinking our way out of it?
“Most of what we do [in life] takes place here, inside the box, with limited resources,” Phil Hansen reminds us. “Learning to be creative within the confines of our limitations is the best hope we have to transform ourselves and, collectively, transform the world.”
Aspire Ventures, an Aspire Universal company, is a venture lab/startup studio based in the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Follow us here or on our website to stay up-to-speed with our innovations. You can also find us on Facebook,Twitter, and LinkedIn.