Innovation Paradox – Liberated by Constraints

by Jeffrey Phillips

Innovation Paradox - Liberated by ConstraintsI’ve been captivated by Roger von Oech’s post about innovation and its relationship to paradox. It seems that almost any factor of innovation can be considered a paradox. Last time I wrote about the paradox of slowing down to speed up. This time I’d like to consider being liberated by constraints.

Generally speaking, most teams believe that constraints limit their thinking, and their ability to be creative. What’s interesting is that most people who “do” creativity for a living crave constraints. Without constraints, every task starts from a blank sheet of paper, a very long and broad sheet of paper, with no clear starting point. David Ogilvy is quoted as having thanked his clients for a “tight brief” – not underwear, but a clearly defined and tightly controlled set of criteria to achieve.

Innovation teams often believe that working without constraints is the best way to get started, but what they inevitably face is a selection problem. Which problem or challenge to solve? Which opportunity to address? These question keep the team circling, until finally the team establishes its own criteria or an executive does that for them. Then, with an opportunity or problem identified they begin to generate ideas. What happens next mirrors what happened earlier – without constraints and guidelines, the team has a difficult time deciding which ideas are the “best”, since there are no clear criteria.

You’ll see this happen most often in corporations that lack clearly defined and communicated strategic goals. When a company tries to be “all things to all people” the people who suffer the most are the innovation teams that need a clear lodestar or well-defined criteria. Often management teams think they are “empowering” an innovation team by giving them a blank slate. Usually that is simply a recipe for frustration.

What happens in with a tight brief, or a well communicated set of criteria, is that the team is then liberated to innovation within those criteria, or to achieve something incredibly new and different within that criteria. Since we all need a villain to slay or some fixed point to pivot from, having some fixed criteria or goals mean that we can then assume those goals are fixed and find all manner of outrageous ways to satisfy those criteria or goals. That’s when the really interesting ideas start flowing. Good ideas then lead to a decision making process based on the established criteria or constraints. This is a two-fer. You get better idea generation, better engagement and a team that can more easily choose the best ideas, since the constraints were clearly identified.

If you want a team to really excel at idea generation, set a big problem or goal for them, define the strategic opportunities and establish some key constraints. Then, allow them all the degrees of freedom possible outside of the constraints, and wait for the great ideas to come.

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and

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  1. How validating!

    My peeps in Newell West Virginia will one day have all they need, on their own merits. With all of the limitations we’re labeled with, all I can see is a straight shot to the biggest community breakthrough in history!

    And I’m not being sarcastic. I honestly can’t see anything else.

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