Constraints are the hidden source of innovation

Posted on January 18, 2021.

“I’m a real believer in that creativity comes from limits, not freedom.” — Jon Stewart, American hero.

Think inside this box!

There’s a general feeling with many of the teams I work with that their hands are tied. They’re tied by budgets, workplace technology, micromanaging bosses, unwilling partners and a bubbling cauldron of other constraints. And it’s these constraints that keep teams from innovating, implementing agile ways of working and building and retaining top-quality teams. Much of the time, if a team can’t achieve a goal it’s been tasked with, the blame falls to the constraints. You can recognize this phenomenon easily because the statements that give it away always start with the same phrase, “…if we only had…”

“If we only had a bigger budget, we could build the prototype we envision.”

“If we only had Macs we could make better designs.”

“If we only had to send our status reports once a month we’d get so much more done.”

“If we only had a willing partner in HR we’d have better candidates for our teams.”

No situation is ideal and no team has everything it needs or could need. Every team works with constraints. It is perhaps surprising then to realize that the creativity, innovation and ultimately the solutions the team is seeking are in fact inspired by these constraints. The act of creating guardrails for the team or limiting their resources forces the “out of the box” thinking these teams regularly seek out. This is exactly the rationale behind the lean startup inspired idea of incremental funding.

Incremental funding works like this: a team is given a deliberately small budget to get to the first version of their product or, at the very least, to collect enough evidence to warrant another small round of funding. Every subsequent round of funding is solely determined by how convincing a case the team can make based on the evidence they’re collecting about their work. This is an example of budget constraints driving innovation and creativity.

Here’s a real world example. Years ago I worked with a big American bank. One of the teams came to the executive I was coaching and asked her for $20MM to “lift and shift” a legacy backend system from an old technology to a new one. The project was estimated to take 2 years. The executive, already an advocate for incremental funding, told the team they could have 6 months and $5MM. If they could prove value after that they could get another 6 months and $5MM. You could literally see the team lead’s head explode when he heard this. “How can we possibly take this massive system and deliver value in 6 months? There is so much to transfer over.” The executive shrugged at him and said, “take it or leave it.”

Within 3 months the team began to function differently. They researched what parts of the system were most used. They tested how to layer the new technology over the old technology allowing them to shift some parts of the system while relying on legacy bits for the rest. In 6 months they shipped an updated system that was a hybrid between the old world and the new delivering value to the customer and to the business. They got their next 6 months funded. Interestingly, by the time the next cycle ended, they declared the project done. By being forced through the constraints of budget and time to think differently, they realized that only certain parts of the system had to be rewritten while the rest could be sunset.

Incremental funding is one way to implement constraints to drive creativity. Time boxing — constraining an exercise or project to a finite amount of time, often deliberately too short — is another way to push a team towards a “good enough” solution they would have likely discarded if they had more time. Limiting a team to a certain technology or delivery channel is a constraint often used to force teams to think about users they may not have without the constraint in place. I saw an example of this in the past year with telco I worked with in Asia who forced an app development team to ensure their work was usable on feature phones.

Constraints provide focus and direction. They force tough prioritization decisions and push the team to be entrepreneurial — to use whatever is available to them to get the job done as best they can. Give a team too few constraints and you’ll often find them spinning and churning on ideas unable to make decisions. Find the right set of constraints and you’ll be amazed what your team produces.