HOW CONSTRAINTS BOOST INNOVATION

Have you ever worked on a project you were very excited about, only to have encountered numerous challenges along the way? Did you give up in the face of adversity or did you accept the challenge? Many companies consider any kind of restrictions and a lack of resources as the main obstacles of innovation. This belief suggests that getting rid of all boundaries and rules will increase creativity and innovation. Is this really true?

Innovations thrives off constraints

According to studies, if there are no constraints during the creation process, people tend to follow a path, psychologists call the path-of-least-resistance. They go for the most intuitive idea that comes to mind, rather than focusing their efforts towards the development of well thought-out ideas.

Contrary to many beliefs, constraints encourage focused thinking and a creative challenge. It motivates people to search for and connect insights from different sources to generate innovative ideas for new projects. Constraints increase the likelihood of a more narrowly focused approach and way forward.

This does not mean that all employees will have a positive response to imposed constraints. Some may be interpreted in different ways: either as a motivating challenge or as a frustrating roadblock. Here, managers should implement their leadership abilities to influence the interpretation of limitations through communication and feedback. Framing constraints as challenges, can help by building a positive perception among employees, thus encouraging innovative thinking. Generally speaking, a company that has a strong innovation climate, will encourage interpretation of constraints as challenges and foster creativity.

Creative teamwork

Types of constraints

Limitations push people towards using their ingenuity, allowing creativity and innovative efforts to thrive. These boundaries can either be naturally given (e.g. government regulations or non-negotiable budgets and deadlines) or artificially imposed by managers. The fewer resources they put at their employee’s disposal, the more they are required to think outside the box in order to get the job done.

Some types of constraints can be manipulated by managers in order to boost creativity within the company. Constraints take three main forms: Managers can limit inputs e.g. time, human capital, funding and material. Furthermore, specific processes can be imposed e.g. seeking early market entrance, utilizing a lean startup-model or brainstorming-rules. Finally, specific output requirements can be set up, such as product or service specifications.

Within these forms, there is a variety of possibilities to adapt different types constraints: First, language-constraints can impose limitations. Take Twitter as an example: The platform’s 280-character limit requires users to write more concisely, which encourages creative thinking and innovative ways of getting important messages across. Managers can also define a language they want to use for all forms of communications within the company, which encourages employees to be resourceful in their ways of communication.

Another factor managers can play around with is the budget. Limited budgets encourage outside-the-box-thinking in order to get innovative ideas off the ground.

Time-limitations represent further constraints. With a ticking clock, teams are forced to think creatively and innovative problem-solving might suddenly appear.

Lastly, spaces can enhance innovation. Consider the ongoing “tiny homes”-trend as an example: Designers have to be very innovative when it comes to interior design, in order to accommodate small areas without sacrificing comfort and amenities.

The importance of balance

Companies can innovate better by embracing constraints. A healthy dose of constraints fosters innovation like no other. On the other hand, creativity and innovation are stifled when constraints become too high. Managers should be mindful not to impose too much, in order to keep highly motivated employees. Creation spaces cannot be too narrow, because this blocks new connections and serendipitous ideas. This is vital for creativity and therefore innovation. Being able to strike a balance between different types of constraints and moderation is key for fostering innovation. When trying to create balance, managers have to take the characteristics of the novel project into account, as different ideas require different approaches. For example, this can be reached through “flexible constraints”, i.e. including some non-essential, nice-to-have boundaries. Flexible constraints represent a challenge for employees who are up to it, while engaging those who may shy away from additional difficulties.

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Carolina Garcia Heusser
Social Media Intern
Carolina just finished her Bachelor degree in communication with a focus in business administration at the University of Zurich. She gained experience in the field of digital content and online marketing at an advertising agency, where she could apply her passion for brands and people. At Spark Works she supports the team by curating our digital content and generating engagement through the management of our social media channels.