Saturday, February 11, 2012

Constraints are the mother of invention

I suppose the title of this post is rhetorical, because there is no aspect of our existence that is truly unconstrained. But even in a more narrow application of the term constraint to business and technology, innovation feeds more from a limited environment--often severely limited--than one where resources are abundant, knowledge is pre-existent, and capabilities are easily devised. We often blame our inability to innovate on lack of resources, lack of experience, and unforeseen challenges of execution, but these very conditions produce our most profound inventions. And for me personally, it's these conditions that bring out my best. Granted, I may kick and scream during the process, but if I can muster the courage to rise to the occasion and persevere, in retrospect they are the most fulfilling of times.

You may have read the Inc. article about the best definition of an entrepreneur. Having worked with a number of entrepreneurs, the definition rings true with me: "Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled." Over the course of my career, I frequently find myself acquiring, applying, and "controlling" resources to achieve the goals of the entrepreneur's pursuit. In the most constrained environments, we must gain knowledge, devise capabilities, and figure out a way to succeed while the sands of our investors' money slip through the hourglass.  It's this environment where we learn how to experiment, take chances, and challenge our assumptions.  Sometimes this leads to significant breakthroughs.

Looking beyond the world of technology and business, constraint appears to be a necessary ingredient in human creativity. We impose constraints as a way to foster creativity, a way to express rich emotion and feelings with a subset of the full language we have at our disposal.  Traditional Blues has the AAB lyric constraint and three chords played over a 12 bar scale. Poetic verse is often constrained to a specific meter, form or structure.  Haiku is limited to the 5 - 7 - 5.  Maybe we impose these constraints to challenge our imagination and express something new while fixing certain fundamental variables.

An article in Psychology Today states that you are more creative if you don't allow your mind to roam free. That's counter-intuitive to say the least, but research indicates this to be the case. After all, Science Fiction writers describe alien life forms as similarly humanoid with remarkable consistency. The article mentions work presented in the book Creativity from Constraints: The Psychology of Breakthrough, suggesting that certain types of constraints promote novel thinking and innovation.  Without these constraints, we tend to fall back to past examples, and the variability of our creations are limited.  Constraints can rule out specific solutions that have worked before, and foster novel approaches.  

This ties back to business, technology and innovation.  Without a constrained environment, in a mythical world where all possible solutions were available, you will tend to pick an approach with which you're most comfortable or familiar. While this could result in success (assuming the same conditions for success exist with the new and previous situation), it will not result in a breakthrough. I've seen entrepreneurs fail because they apply the same patterns they used successfully in the past to a new challenge. The presence of constraints is no guarantee for creativity, and creativity is no guarantee for success, but those who support and invest in entrepreneurs often use creativity as an indicator of potential success.  They chastise those whose ideas are overly-constrained without realizing that constraint is at the core of creativity.  Alas, there are different kinds of constraints.

As innovators, we must learn to embrace constraints.  We must be cognizant of the constrained environment in which we operate and explore the full range of possibilities within that field of play. Sometimes you only have 17 syllables to express the wonder of a sunset or the crisp air of a winter morning. Sometimes the limitations you feel are crushing your creativity and suppressing your best work are in fact providing you the opportunity of a lifetime.

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