Why constraints are crucial to innovation


We are often told to “think outside the box”.

Working within constraints, however, may be crucial to actually being able to innovate and create something new and different.

When you are free of any constraints or limitations, it is difficult to see what will truly make a difference because you don’t really have anything to measure yourself against.

You might end up doing new things for the sake of newness, rather than because they are going to be a improvement on what has happened so far.

Take, for example, Frank Gehry’s design of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, hailed as one of the “most acoustically sophisticated concert halls in the world”.

According to the architect, the interior space was designed for stringent acoustic standards, and the limations and constraints that resulted from the standards drove the design and innovation choices that have made the hall a landmark.

A simple constraint can focus attention and create the conditions for generating innovative solutions.

Take the idea of Zero Emissions Cities. If you wanted to reduce emissions in a city to nothing, what would you do?

Governments and city officials would need to radically change their policies and incentives to support zero emissions energy initiatives.

You would need to think about how the energy infrastructure could be upgraded, the issues around smart mobility and logistics – moving passengers and freight around, and the way in which the environment and ecosystem would be managed.

The possibilities for innovation are endless – once you have imposed a constraint or target.

Coming closer to home, constraints can increase your own productivity.

One of the biggest time sinks for us is mobile phones. The endless screens mean that you could keep scrolling and reading for ever.

Software with features can result in you spending more time with the features and less time doing any useful work.

Most advice around personal productivity involves turning off phones and distractions and slimming down your work tools to the essentials needed to get on with the job.

According to Donald Sull of McKinsey, the key to improving the way in which you innovate is to pick simple rules to guide how you work.

Having these rules helps you prioritize, to assess where you are, to keep an eye on whether you are on target and can make a step change in improving your innovation processes.

You do need to think outside the box to come up with ideas and in order to be open to possibilities.

When it comes to action and innovation, however, the crucial next step may be to choose the right box to step into and work within.

2 Replies to “Why constraints are crucial to innovation”

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