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Five Constraints That Help Me Innovate

Embrace constraints not as a negative condition but as a guide for growth and innovation.

Innovation is often considered an optimistic venture, but what is it that actually makes it possible? Although it may come as a surprise, it's the constraints you encounter. Constraints get a bad rap—at first they seem to be a nagging annoyance. But in my work as a systems designer at IDEO, I've found that they've become a great ally.


A kite flies because of pressure dynamics in the air, but the string facilitates that condition. Cut the string and it will crash. In other words, constraints can be guides. Here are five guiding "strings" I use in my work in the innovation and design space.

1. I can't imitate forever.

The great thing about imitation is the power of emulation—the desire to equal or excel. By doing what the "master" does, you learn and improve. It is a very effective tool for refining something that is already known. The downside of imitation, by its very nature, is that it cannot be innovative.

The minute you break from imitation, like improving on it, you have started to innovate. So once you've got the strokes—the wax on, wax off—let go of imitation and keep the spirit of emulation, the drive to excel. If you want to improve on something or make something new, you'll need to tweak, shift away from, or disrupt the status quo by going beyond the existing model.

2. I can't know everything.

I am always surprised by how many people approach us and say they want to discover an innovative solution to a problem, but they come with the solution in hand for us to design. It doesn't work that way. Innovation requires not knowing—because you can't—what the right answer is at the outset.

You might have a freakin' awesome guess based on a heap of data showing likeliness to succeed, but if you're looking for innovation you just don't know—it hasn't been done before. As a colleague of mine at IDEO reminds me, "sometimes when you start trying to address a problem, you don't even know what are the right questions to ask."

Embrace uncertainty and start with small experiments to explore. You know all the cliché examples—the Wright Brothers and Thomas Edison—but there are new ones emerging all the time, like Uber disrupting the transportation industry, or Safaricom connecting more people with health care through telecom in Kenya. The one thing they have in common is an insatiable posture of learning. Innovators are pioneers, and pioneers have a very different mindset than those treading beaten paths. When you're trying out new stuff, you're bound to be wrong or even screw up sometimes. Try not to be discouraged by small failures. Instead, see it as a data point for iteration that’ll help you explore new ground.

3. I can't focus all the time.

There are lots of studies that show the benefit of focus. I remember being on a project where we looked at dozens of outstandingly successful projects, like the Mars Rover Sojourner, the film Avatar, NASCAR championship races, Navy SEALs missions, the iPhone 1, and others. All of these projects exemplified a laser-like focus that didn't verge on, but leaped past the line of reasonability. But to think that their innovation came from focus alone is misleading.

Letting go of focus for a period of time allows other images and ideas to enter. Often, only then does the breakthrough concept—or the answer that will help further develop the idea—emerge. For the Mars Rover, looking to other ways of cheaply manufacturing parts outside the organizational structure allowed innovation to happen. For Avatar, it was looking at other technology that could help tell a story. For Apple's iPhone, it was forgetting everything they knew about what a phone was.

Innovation requires inspiration. Inspiration doesn't just come out of nowhere. It just seems that way because it's usually out of our focus. I harvest inspiration in every way I can: reading, people watching, site visits, conversations, vacations, movies, etc. Usually, that requires me to pause what I'm immediately working on to allow new provocations and ideas to enter my view. Try scheduling "unfocused time" to allow for inspiration to enter your work.

4. I can't listen to everyone.

This is probably the hardest constraint. As a design thinker, I wholeheartedly believe in informing my work by knowing the people I'm designing for. I have lots of interaction and conversations, and observe them in their everyday environments. I consult with colleagues and experts to further enrich my perspective. After all, if I want to make something new for my specific design challenge, there's probably a good reason it hasn't been done before: Someone didn't think of it (maybe), or people didn't think it was a good idea—or that it could be done.

When listening to people, in addition to all the juicy, good stuff, I also get crummy advice, distracting inputs, and worst of all, heaps of discouragement. The innovator works within this constraint and becomes better for it. They build the "muscles" of hearing everyone out, but listening to those that help push the purpose forward—whether it's criticism or praise—sifting the gems from the rough. If you don't work in a collaborative environment, set up your own. Create your own personal council—friends, family, and coworkers, and why not make use of your Twitter and LinkedIn network, too—of advisers.

5. I can't be perfect.

Perfection, if there is such a thing, is the outcome of innate being, or, for the rest of us, refining. That means there is something to refine. And while you may find new answers through the refinement process, the minute you reach what you think is perfect, no newness is required. So, when you add something "new" to the "perfect," you've made it imperfect.

Getting it "perfect" is not an act of artisanship, because the true artisan remains in a state of perfecting. Looking for new ways of refining is core to that. Some call this "incremental innovation." I'm reminded of the 85-year-old Sushi master Jiro Ono with his 10-seat, three-star Michelin-rated restaurant in Japan, who still dreams of crafting the perfect sushi roll after decades of making them. Don't lose the aspiration and practice of perfecting, but detach yourself from a "perfect" outcome.

Of course, each of these five constraints, in their inverse, is also necessary at various stages of innovation. You have to give the kite some slack to fly higher. I certainly imitate things out there in the world when I’m learning at the outset. No doubt, I ultimately want to succeed, desiring to effectively solve a problem or create a new opportunity. I always aspire to infuse into my work a standard of quality that I'll be proud of decades later. And of course the hallmark of an innovator is the fluid shifting between seeing the bigger picture(s) and then zooming in to drive the idea forward. Yet, just as I learn more from my failures than my successes, I also find that my constraints help me innovate more than my freedoms. Constraints are my ally, not my foe.

Embrace constraints not as a negative condition but as a guide for growth and innovation. Don't be quick to cut the strings, nor obsess over the spool. Rather, focus on the flight of the kite, and how you can serve it.

Need more innovation inspiration? Click here to make this "33 Ways to Stay Creative" list part of your life.

String image via Shutterstock

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