When we hear the words “constraints” or “limitations”, innovation is not exactly the first thing that comes to our mind. Many of us believe that an optimal hotbed for innovation should be absent of constraints, no matter if they are regulatory, physical, financial or resource related.
Counter-intuitively, constraints can be the innovator’s most loyal friends, and contribute to the innovation process which is often essential to the creation of a competitive advantage.
Constraints do not have to be external to the company or team that are engaged in the creation of the new innovation, but can actually be imposed intentionally by a member of the team or a leader in the company. Such a limitation can be in a form of a demanding product or design requirement that is imposed on the team.
The engineers and designers that brought the first iPhone to the world in 2007, had to work within a design constraint imposed by Steve Jobs, demanding that the new device will be developed without a physical keyboard or a stylus, and with a screen that covers most of the device’s size.
The team had to innovate within this boundary, and ended up creating a dominant design that still controls the industry many years later. To bring about this major leap forward in smartphone design, the team had to create innovations such as a revolutionary multi-touch technology, and a dynamic on-screen keyboard that can change according to application and context.
In Product Management, self-imposed constraints are used widely, but are not always regarded as such. In teams practicing Agile methodologies for example, the software development iterations (also called “sprints”) are limited to a specific duration, usually not longer than just a few weeks. At the end of each sprint, working software is released, and becomes available to the product’s users. The advantages of the limited duration of sprints are constant and faster delivery of value to the users, and more importantly - a faster feedback loop that enables the team to continuously tune the innovation process until a product-market fit is achieved.
Another self-imposed constraint, used by teams striving to bring new products to the market, is a clear definition of an MVP (minimum viable product). When a minimal set of requirements is met, a first version of the product must be released to the market without further ado. This limits the risk of investing too many resources in a product that does not meet the market’s needs, and enables the team to pivot early if necessary.
Constraints are not always self-imposed off course, they are often external to the company or team.
Let’s take a limited team size as an example. The team size can be limited by a financial constraint such as a budget (or raised capital in case of startup companies). One might think that a small team size would limit the velocity of innovations produced by that team. Surprisingly, a smaller team size can contribute to a faster innovation process.
How is that possible? A limitation on the team’s size contributes to a faster and more efficient communication within the team, as ideas and decisions naturally spread faster within a smaller group of people. Faster communication and decision making can boost innovation as the team can respond faster to changing market needs and users’ feedback, and as a result pivot or correct the course of innovation fast if necessary. These are probably some of the reasons that made Jeff Bezos point out that if you can’t feed a team with two pizzas, then it’s probably too large.
The good news is that recent research supports the notion that the innovation process can be benefited by a healthy amount of constraints, whether they are external like regulation or internal like self-imposed deadlines.
In conclusion, it is important to remember that constraints should not always be regraded as negative, quite the contrary, you may want to self-impose constraints on yourselves or your teams, and use them as innovation boosters.