Constraints Stimulate Innovation

Gene Leganza [Posted by Gene Leganza]

I recently attended a SIM luncheon where a panel of speakers addressed innovation in IT. The four panelists had completely different points of view and different experiences with pursuing innovation in their respective companies, but there were two points of intersection.


While I’d like to focus on the second point, the first point was central to all four panelists’ stories and too important to skip: The outside-in viewpoint is critical to innovation. For IT, “outside” may mean the business stakeholder, the ultimate external consumer, or an external partner. The key is to really understand the other’s problem. For example, for the pharma panelist, that meant learning the FDA’s drug approval process in detail. That led to an understanding of where more dynamic access to data could cut months off the approval process for new drugs.


The other point of intersection was about constraints as a stimulus to innovation or to creativity in general. Viewed negatively, constraints present limitations to one’s actions. But positively viewed, they simply provide bounds to the possible responses. One is free to innovate within those bounds and the limiting of options can actually stimulate thinking along channels that will ultimately lead to success. A general illustration of this idea is the way an artist in any medium understands how to work within or even exploit the limits of his or her medium. Think of what expression a blues musician gets out of a limited scale and a similarly limited range of chord changes. And severe constraints can trigger innovative thinking as a necessary response: a demand to cut budgets by 5% is a tedious paper exercise but a demand to cut by 50% requires new thinking, new ways of solving problems. To extend the art analogy, I recently saw some works by a former oil painter who had developed allergies to all oil-based compounds – these were works of graphite on paper that showed an uncanny sensitivity, a sensitivity that developed only when the broader options presented by oil paints were no longer possible. Severe limitations can compel us to do things we previously would not have considered. One of the SIM panelists observed that, given that phenomenon, the current economic climate should actually be good for innovation.