Why Constraints Are Good for Innovation


Here is an excerpt from an article written by Oguz A. Acar, Murat Tarakci, and Daan van Knippenberg for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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Recent surveys show that managers tend to consider compliance restrictions and a lack of resources as the main obstacles to innovation. This common wisdom suggests eradicating all constraints: by getting rid of rules and boundaries, creativity, and innovative thinking will thrive. Our research, however, challenges this wisdom and suggests that managers can innovate better by embracing constraints. We reviewed 145 empirical studies on the effects of constraints on creativity and innovation, and found that individuals, teams, and organizations alike benefit from a healthy dose of constraints. It is only when the constraints become too high that they stifle creativity and innovation.

As a simple illustration of the principle, consider GE Healthcare’s MAC 400 Electrocardiograph (ECG), which revolutionized rural access to medical care. The product was the outcome of a formidable set of constraints imposed on GE engineers: develop an ECG device that boasts the latest technology, costs no more than $1 per scan, is ultra portable to reach rural communities (i.e, should be lightweight and  fit into a backpack), and is battery operated. The engineers were given just 18 months and a budget of $500,000 – a very modest budget by GE’s standards, given that development of its predecessor cost $5.4 million.  Our research suggests that GE engineers were not successful despite these constraints, but because of them. Constraints can foster innovation when they represent a motivating challenge and focus efforts on a more narrowly defined way forward.

According to the studies we reviewed, when there are no constraints on the creative process, complacency sets in, and people follow what psychologists call the path-of-least-resistance – they go for the most intuitive idea that comes to mind rather than investing in the development of better ideas. Constraints, in contrast, provide focus and a creative challenge that motivates people to search for and connect information from different sources to generate novel ideas for new products, services, or business processes.

Therefore, managers can embrace and use a variety of constraints in their arsenal. These constraints take three main forms. First, they can limit inputs (e.g., time, human capital, funds, excess cash, and available materials). For example, managers may intentionally cap resources in corporate entrepreneurship initiatives to motivate employees to be more resourceful. Second, they can enforce specific processes. Examples include procedures on seeking early market and technological feedback (e.g., lean start-up model), guidelines on how small cross-functional work teams should interact (e.g., agile management approaches), or rules for brainstorming. Third, they can set specific output requirements such as product or service specifications. For example, Apple’s former Design Chief Jonathan Ive is known to have imposed use of scratch-resistant aluminosilicate glass during the design of iPhone 4.

But managers also need to be mindful about imposing too many constraints. When a creative task is too constraining, employees’ motivation is hampered. If the space within which creative ideas are generated becomes too narrow, it is harder to form novel connections and serendipitous insights – both of which are vital for creativity. Hence, the key for fostering creativity and innovation in your organization is to strike a balance by orchestrating different types of constraints.

Google illustrates this balance by, on the one hand, providing employees ample freedom to work on innovation projects that they want to pursue (e.g., Google 20% time), and on the other hand, by embracing ‘creativity loves constraints’ as one of their main principles to guide their innovation efforts. Examples of constraints used by Google include strict deadlines for developing prototypes and ambitious performance requirements about products in terms of its usability across different devices (e.g., it should work on all devices regardless of screen resolution) and download size or time.

Similarly, consider InnoCentive—one of the largest global crowdsourcing platforms—which orchestrates constraints to tackle complex R&D problems. As former CEO Dwayne Spradlin noted, a typical innovation problem should contain tight output constraints (in the form of solution requirements), and typically these are combined with moderate input constraints (e.g., often time limitations ranging from a month to several months) but complete freedom in terms of the process through which the crowd comes up with the solutions.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Oguz A. Acar is an associate professor (senior lecturer) at City, University of London’s Cass Business School and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Follow him on Twitter at @oguzaliacar.

Murat Tarakci is an associate professor of innovation management at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University. His research investigates how to create innovative organizations. He examines what motivates managers’ search for new strategic initiatives, and how managerial power and leadership affect generating novel ideas. He regularly teaches and advises executives on digital transformation, strategy implementation, and innovation.

Daan van Knippenberg is Joseph F. Rocereto Chair of Leadership at LeBow College of Business, Drexel University, where he is also the Academic Director of the Institute for Strategic Leadership. Daan’s areas of expertise include leadership, team performance, and creativity and innovation; areas where he is not only an active researcher but also conducts diagnostic research to support organizations in strategy implementation efforts. His teaching concentrates on leadership development in the Executive MBA program and in executive education, and on developing researchers through PhD and DBA program teaching.



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