Select Page

Reduce the options to force your innovation team to work under duress

Reduce the options to force your innovation team to work under duress

By Rikus Grobler,, [email protected] .

I am currently focusing one some techniques on how to improve innovation capabilities, more specifically, how to get your people to come up with great ideas and take action on them.

I have always reasoned that innovation is a skill that can be learned and improved upon. Hence, the rationale for focusing on these matters is that organisations can not just leave innovation up to chance and like any organisational discipline, you have to improve innovation skills and practices constantly and consistently to stay competitive.

Just as organisations always have to improve efficiencies, reduce costs, motivate people, increase sales, increase marketing impact, grow the customer base, etc., innovation capability also have to improve all the time, in fact, if you improve innovation capability, progressing all these other things I mentioned becomes so much easier!

In the previous delivery I discussed goal-setting and its influence on innovation. Another counter-intuitive technique that you can use to grow your innovation capability, is to stimulate innovation by imposing constraints.

Imposing constraints can boost creativity

Many creative thinking techniques propagate having “an open mind”. It comes in many forms and terms like all ideas are welcomed, no matter how absurd; thinking out of the box; divergent thinking; blue sky thinking, etc. There are merits in these techniques and I encourage the use of these methods, so why then come with the absurd recommendation of imposing constraints on innovation?

In essence, it is all about changing your perspective. According to psychologists, when you have less to work with, you actually begin to see the world differently.

With constraints, you dedicate your mental energy to acting more resourcefully. When challenged, you figure out new ways to be better. Obstacles can broaden your perception, open up your thinking processes and can help you improve at connecting unrelated ideas and concepts.

There are a number of studies that back these arguments, but for those who are really interested in finding out more about this phenomenon, I recommend reading “Creativity from Constraints: The Psychology of Breakthrough” by Dr. Patricia Stokes. (You can watch a video on her techniques here: )

How can this be applied in practical terms? The most obvious constraints come in the form of time and budget. If you limit the delivery time or budget of a project, you basically force people to do and try things out of the norm.

Here are two well-known examples of project teams that created the “impossible” under enormous time constraints:

1.) Steve Jobs gave Apple’s iPod team “8 months from start to market.” If the team could not deliver on this requirement, not only would the iPod miss the Christmas ordering deadlines, but Apple would likely be dead as an organisation as a result. It remains nothing short of amazing that they were able to go from no-concept to market in such a short period of time; but, of course, there was no alternative!

2.) In 1948, six Boeing engineers worked for weekend in a hotel room to produce a 33 page proposal, which included moving from turbo-prop to jet engines, and accompanied this proposal with a balsa-model prototype, in order to salvage a team project that was at the risk of failure. Granted, the matter of winning a World War is probably the best motivator of all!

In both instances, short time targets undoubtedly served to impress a sense of urgency on all involved, and resulted in the “fat” being cut out of the innovation processes.

However, if you really think about it, there are more constraints than just time and budget, as limitations are naturally imposed. For example, in business, it’s your resources, regulations, competitors, and market forces which must be dealt with. In, say aircraft design, it can be things like the laws of aerodynamics, available materials, budget, fuel, and weight.

Different obstacles and limitations affect the outcome of projects depending on the domain in question, the creator, the goal, subject, and tasks. Thus instead of just creating constraints through budget and time limitations, why not add constraints of a different nature as well?

For example: reduce the number of people working on a project, reduce the space required for building a product, only limit yourself to a specific type of technology or raw material, reduce a customer process from 10 steps to 3 steps, in software development – reduce the code by half to perform a specific action in a programme.

Please let me know if you have used any other type of constraint in your organisation to drive innovation performance and got amazing results because of it.

Next Time

I have now dealt with goal-setting and imposing constraints as methods of improving innovation capability. Next I want to focus on finding good problems to solve – the starting point of innovation in my opinion.

I conclude with a quote from Jonah Lehrer: “The imagination is unleashed by constraints. You break out of the box by stepping into shackles.”


About The Author

Rikus Grobler

Dr Rikus Grobler is a Namibian academic, inventor, entrepreneur, public speaker, and business consultant who specializes in the development of the innovation capability of companies and individuals. He holds degrees in Engineering and Law and has an MBA and a Ph.D. in Business Administration. He is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) of the Project Management Institute (PMI), and he has also completed studies in design thinking and intellectual property management. An experienced professional with a background in manufacturing, information technology, tertiary education, research, consulting, and financial services, Dr. Grobler has been involved in innovation management for the past ten years and currently holds the position of Manager: Innovation for the Capricorn Group in Namibia. He is particularly interested in creativity, innovation, and invention.