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Constraints Can Set You Free

Constraints can lead to great innovation and creativity. Welcome obstacles with open arms, and you, too, might change the world.

Article Jan 02, 2023

Rob Keefer

Innovation is often discussed and thought about as a “process,” as if it involves following a standard set of steps linearly to an expected outcome. Create a plan, open the magic book of innovation, follow the directions, and voila! You’ve done it!

If only it were that simple. The path to innovation is filled with setbacks and disappointments. No matter how meticulously we plan and how carefully we apply our knowledge and experience, we will find ourselves at some point bumping up against physical and mental constraints that provide obstacles to progress.

The evidence throughout history suggests that constraints can be the best thing that could happen to you. How you perceive those constraints, whether you allow them to become obstacles to your goals, can differentiate between success and failure. They may well prompt a desire, in some, to give up. We say: Don’t let it.

Constraints are not a dead end. They could well be the beginning of something big. When approached the right way, constraints create a mindset that frees you to assess problems in new ways and find the solutions you were striving for through creative thought and the proverbial “out of the box” thinking.

Are Constraints Real?

Going by the dictionary definition, a constraint is something that “limits or restricts” actions or behaviors. We live with constraints every day.

  • Your car breaks down, and you don’t have enough money to fix it. (Lack of resources.)
  • The item you want is on the top shelf in the grocery store, just out of reach. (Physical impediment.)
  • An accident creates delays and keeps you from getting to work on time. (Unexpected and surprising events.)
  • You have something to say on social media, but Twitter limits you to 280 characters. (Unfavorable rules.)

We could continue. Thinking of these and other limits as constraints gives them an element of physicality as if they are giant boulders blocking your path and threatening to defeat you in your quest.

What if you instead thought of limits as merely constraining factors? Doing so casts them in a different light as variables to contend with and adjust to rather than giant forces that seem too massive to overcome. Focus on challenges as variables, not obstacles, encourages a solution mindset — borrowing from a family member to fix the car, asking a grocery worker for help in reaching that elusive item, taking a different route to work, using Facebook instead of Twitter.

The shift in mindset from obstacle to solution makes a big difference not only for individuals in everyday life but also for professionals and their organizations. Management consultants have developed a problem-solving methodology around this idea known as the Theory of Constraints.”

The Theory of Constraints encourages a problem-solving mindset that is repeatable and can be used to resolve other types of internal or external bottlenecks. Under the Theory of Constraints, organizations are held back from achieving their goals by at least one overarching problem that dwarfs all the others. Management needs to marshal the resources to identify, attack, and eliminate that big problem as a factor in what the organization wishes to accomplish.

In the context of innovation, the Theory of Constraints may not require eliminating a problem (which may be impossible to do so in the first place) but instead finding a workaround to allow progress to continue. It means thinking about the structure of a problem differently, from a higher level, to spot new solutions that may not have been apparent without the constraints in place.

Professors at the University of Amsterdam explored this phenomenon in a 2011 paper that analyzed a cohort of studies that examined the psychological impact of constraints in various contexts. “Can obstacles prompt people to look at the “big picture” and open up their minds? Do the cognitive effects of obstacles extend beyond the tasks with which they interfere?” the authors asked in the executive summary of their paper. After exploring a half dozen studies, the author concluded: “Unless people are inclined to disengage prematurely from ongoing activities, obstacles will prompt them to step back and adopt a more global, Gestalt-like processing style that allows them to look at the “big picture” and conceptually integrate seemingly unrelated pieces of information.”

Evidence from science, engineering, technology, and even the arts demonstrates the truth of this idea repeatedly.

Examples of Obstacle-Breaking Constraints

What if you had something you wanted to do with your life that requires a certain physical dexterity, and for reasons unexplained, through some illness or condition, your body prevents you from having that flexibility? That’s what happened to Phil Hansen, an aspiring artist who developed a shaking in his hands that prevented him from drawing straight lines. Stunned, frustrated, and depressed, Hansen initially abandoned his desire to become a commercially successful artist. But then his doctor gave him a piece of advice that changed his mindset: “why don’t you embrace the shake?’’ the doctor asked — and that’s what Hansen did. That simple comment gave a mindset that allowed him to embrace his challenge as a constraining factor rather than a destroyer of dreams. He adopted a modern artistic style where he began creating art from everyday items such as Starbucks coffee cups. Hansen is now viewed as the “artist of the people.” He tells his story in a TED Talk viewed by millions.

Artists have been known to purposely impose constraints on themselves as experiments to see what might happen. One of Ernest Hemingway’s contributions to literature was an exploration of the power of brevity when he penned this six-word story: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” (Legend has it that he was responding to a bar bet.) Since then, writers have used the six-word story concept as a prompt to challenge their creativity. The results are nothing short of fascinating.

In 2006, Larry Smith, founder of SMITH Magazine, asked readers to tell their stories in six words, and the magazine was overwhelmed with submissions. Smith subsequently created the Six-Word Memoir project, which has become a phenomenon worldwide. Some of the six-word memoirs highlighted on the site are poignant and touching:

“Half rain, half sunshine, all me.”

“My life’s minor chords resonate longer.”

“The vanishing point. Frozen in time.”

“Thoughts ripple through still water dreams.”

Smith craftily titled his TED Talk as “I would have. You never asked.” Listen to him describe the origins and impact of the six-word project and what it says about creativity. He describes it as a “catalyst for expression.” Constraints, as we say, are catalysts - not obstacles.

Constraints as a Catalyst in Innovation

That all sounds nice, but what if you are a scientist or engineer and find yourself contending with the unforgiving rules of the physical world? Constraints, it turns out, can also create breakthroughs in these worlds and have been for literally centuries. Legend has it that eyeglasses were conceived in and around the 13th century by a Franciscan scholar to enable older Franciscans to continue reading, writing, and contributing to the world. Similarly, the creation of the telephone was driven in part by a desire to allow those with hearing impairments to participate more in society.

Without a willingness to embrace constraints, we may never have changed the trajectory of human civilization by landing a man on the moon in 1969. For such an audacious task, it required the confidence and vision of the most powerful man in the world: President John F. Kennedy, who in 1961 challenged the nation to accomplish a safe Moon landing by the end of the decade. The timing itself — the end of the decade — was the constraining factor that led scientists and engineers to spring into action to overcome the enormous technological challenges. “We choose to go to the Moon, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” President Kennedy famously observed.

As NASA points out, much of the technology needed to meet the goal only didn’t exist at the time, nor was it even conceived of at the time. For example, in 1962, pilots flew aircraft manually, making adjustments mechanically using controls within their reach. NASA felt it needed a computerized control system to eliminate human error and allow for more precise calculations to the target. This need for navigation support resulted in the Apollo Primary Guidance, Navigation, and Control System. Planes were all being flown worldwide in the same automated way within a decade.

There are documented examples of businesses using the creative spark of limitations to produce breakthroughs. As reported in a paper in the Harvard Business Review, General Electric challenged scientists one year to create a new electrocardiograph with challenging specs to make the machine affordable in rural communities. As HBR describes it, GE gave the team a meager budget of $500,000 and just 18 months to produce. The outcome was GE Healthcare’s MAC 400 Electrocardiograph, which HBR says “revolutionized rural access to medical care.”

Constraints also keep team members sharp. HBR writes, “when there are no constraints on the creative process, complacency sets in, and people follow what psychologists call the path-of-least-resistance – they go for the most intuitive idea that comes to mind rather than investing in the development of better ideas.”

In other words, in roles that require innovation, it’s better to welcome obstacles with open arms as challenges that call you to meet the moment. Adopt this mindset, and you, too, might change the world.

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