Thursday, May 24, 2007

Outrageous constraints drive innovation

Suppose I offered you a million dollars as a reward, on the requirement that you produce a baby from a standing start in one month. As we all know from the old saying, nine men can't make a baby in a month - so we have assumptions about the time necessary to produce a baby.

Does that type of thinking infiltrate the way we work in other aspects of our lives? Sure, there are some gestational issues with producing a baby in less than nine months, but do all the time frames and other constraints we constantly live with have to be accepted as givens? One exercise we like a lot when innovating is to relieve a constraint or place an outrageous constraint on an idea and open up a new line of thinking.

For example, do you think it's possible to build a two story, 3 bedroom house in less than a week? Generally speaking, most firms will tell you six to nine months. However, a television show put the challenge to several firms to see if they could organize themselves to build a habitable, up to code house, in less than one week. With careful planning, staging of the necessary equipment and materials and working round the clock, they did it. But this is something few people would have requested, given the fact that we all "know" it should take 6 to 9 months. Alternatively, suppose we placed cap on the maximum cost of a passenger automobile at $5000 and left in place all the safety requirements and other constraints. Could that car be built, and if so, what would it take? Can you imagine creating a car that costs only $5000 and selling it in the US or in Europe? You'd practically have a disposable car - every three or four years simply donate it or recycle it and buy a new one.

When you consider your ideas and the challenges and opportunities that face your organization, you can't help but bring along the cultural expectations and "limitations" that you live with daily. A great way to break out of these and consider entirely new markets and opportunities is to relax or constrain certain variables about the idea, then ideate to see what's possible given that new set of criteria or constraints. A $5000 car that meets all US Federal guidelines would open up an entirely new market - and new use and expectations for automobiles. Being able to build a house in five days, if packaged correctly, could create an entirely new market for rebuilding after storm damage, earthquakes and other calamities. This would help people get back in their homes quickly instead of living in trailers or other temporary housing.

Often when we ideate, the unbounded and unstructured nature of brainstorming will lead us to ideas that while interesting, are not feasible. When using a constraints-driven approach, you can open up new opportunities and new markets by constraining or relaxing just one or two variables. The next time you are considering a new product or service, ask yourself - what are one or two assumed constraints that if dramatically changed would create an entirely new opportunity?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 1:51 PM

41 Comments:

Anonymous Carl said...

Great post and great idea. Interestingly, this also occurs in music composition.

Stravinsky was known to put restraints on himself whenever he began composing a new piece of music.

This forced him to find new ways to express himself (within the limits) and forced him to explore new options he hadn't thought of before.

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Anonymous Sarah Glover said...

This kind of thinking sounds like fun to me. Great post!

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