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Creativity under constraint


It’s easy to think that innovation is about resources – throw enough money, smart minds and clever technology at the problem and the answer will surely follow. But the history of ideas suggests there is another pathway. Sometimes the very absence of resources is what galvanises innovation. Think about these examples:

  1. Back in 1943 at the height of the war a small team at Lockheed’s Burbank factory were given the apparently impossible task of designing and building a jet aircraft within six months. They’d never built a jet before so there were no designs to work from, the technology was unknown, the only engine was in the UK and wouldn’t be available to them to experiment with until near the end of the project – and the factory was already working flat out on producing bombers for the war effort. Kelly Johnson was the manager appointed to run this project and one of his first tasks was to rent a circus tent because there was no space available for his team to work in! Time was of the essence – the Germans had been working on jets since 1938 and were already flying their Messerschmidt 262 fighters in Europe. Despite all these barriers his ‘skunk works’ team achieved their target with weeks to spare, producing and safely flying the Shooting Star.

  1. Toyota wasn’t always the great car-maker we know today. Back in the post-war years Japan’s slow and painful recovery was hampered by resource shortages, its physical infrastructure still severely damaged and skilled labour desperately scarce. All of this on an island which had to import most of its key industrial resources. The stuttering local car market was small and fragmented; under such conditions it was impossible to run a car factory in the profligate style associated with mass production. Constraints forced experiments towards a radically different approach emphasising reduced waste at every stage. From these unhappy beginnings (and a long learning process) the idea of ‘lean’ was born, one which went on to become one of the most powerful process innovations of the twentieth century.

  1. It’s not just in the world of manufacturing – back in the 1970s Dr Govindappa Venkataswamy began his search to try and bring safe low cost eye care to the poor of India. The cataract operation he pioneered was simple enough to perform technically; the innovation challenge he faced was doing so in a resource-constrained context. Lack of skills or facilities and more importantly lack of money – the average cost of cataract treatment was around $300, far beyond the means of poor village folk trying to subsist on incomes of less than $2/day. His Aravind Eye System borrowed ideas from the world of fast food and essentially shifted the model of surgery to one similar to manufacturing – in the process cutting the average cost to $25 and delivering it using largely unskilled labour trained in narrow focused areas. Forty years later and millions of people around the world owe their sight to his innovation; his ideas influenced Devi Shetty and others to pioneer similar approaches to operations as complex as heart by-pass surgery, again massively lowering the costs without compromising on the safety element.

  1. And think about the world of the arts. Each season the Royal Shakespeare Company faces the challenge of short time scales and the need to find something new in a 400 year old repertoire limited to 37 plays – all of which have already been performed thousands of times before. Despite this they can still push the edges of the audience experience.

Something is going on here which is clearly not about having lots of resources – instead the very shortage of them forces a different mind-set. It triggers a different kind of search, one with a number of important characteristics:

  1. Ends rather than means drive innovation – the presence of a challenging vision compels innovation, even if the ways of reaching the goal are unclear

  1. Extensive search – because the normal pathways may be blocked the search for solutions pushes out into new and unfamiliar territory

  1. Reframing – one powerful exploration tool is to work at a higher level of abstraction, bridging between different worlds to find solutions to similar problems (for example Aravind’s leap between the worlds of healthcare and fast food)

  1. Creatively combining – improvising solutions from what is available, often in novel configurations. The French word ‘bricolage’ helpfully describes this process which is one of the core elements in the entrepreneur’s mind-set

  1. Experimental learning – improvising and building on what emerges, learning fast from early prototyping

  1. Tolerance of imperfection – rather than planning the innovation from the outset the journey is one of stepping-stone jumps, improving as the design takes shape and often building in key elements of the user experience into the process

A 1960s novel (made into a successful movie in 2004), ‘The Flight of the Phoenix’, provides a good example of the way this story unfolds. A plane crashes in the Mongolian Desert and some people survive. They have little food and water, they are miles from anywhere, the radio is (of course) broken and the sun is beating down. It doesn’t take long to set up the drama – they are trapped and unless they come up with a radical solution fast they will all die. Plenty of room for arguments, romance and other dramatic devices – but at its heart the story is about creativity under constraints. One of the survivors has a background in aeronautical engineering, enough of the plane remains intact so that parts could be bolted together to make a crude airframe, one of the engines is undamaged and there are enough drops of fuel left to give them one shot at flying their ‘Phoenix’ out of the desert and to safety. It’s a story of improvisation, inspiration, occasional violent arguments which trigger new insights – and it has a more or less happy ending!

Recent research on creativity lends support to this model. In studies at the University of Amsterdam it appears that obstacles and constraints actually help the creative process. Using different kinds of barriers and constraints the studies found that participants began to search more widely in their problem solving behaviour – as if the limitations trigger an “if obstacle, then start global processing” response.

It’s not enough just to have the search behaviour – we also need perseverance. The Amsterdam studies found the global search effect particularly powerful when used by individuals who were naturally inclined to stay engaged and finish on-going activities. We’ve got plenty of role models in the world of innovation which remind us of this – for example, Thomas Edison trying hundreds of possible solutions before he found a filament for his light bulb, James Dyson struggling through 5 years and 5000 prototypes for his cyclone vacuum cleaner.

‘Creativity loves constraints’ is one of Google’s operating mantras, driving innovation in new directions. A powerful principle – as long as we recognise that it involves a balancing act. Constraints provide pressure, but too much pressure can be dangerous. Urgent projects can become unstoppable – the tragic disaster in 1986 when the Challenger space shuttle exploded shortly after launch is a powerful reminder of this. In many ways it mirrored an earlier aviation disaster; back in 1930 the airship R101 on its maiden voyage crashed into a hillside in France killing all on board. Like the Challenger the R101 project was high profile and driven by a sense of urgency, always in the public eye, being rushed along by high profile leaders pushing for success.

Just as the faulty O-ring seals in the Challenger’s engines were known about but brushed aside by project managers driven by the urgency of the shuttle launch, so the R101 engineers could not get their doubting voices heard. As the novelist Nevil Shute (who worked in the industry) commented in his autobiography ‘Slide rule” ‘…. it was impossible for them to admit mistakes without incurring discredit far exceeding their deserts, for everybody makes mistakes from time to time. Surely no engineers were ever placed in so unhappy a position’


What we’re looking for is the ‘sweet spot’ between having enough constraints to provide the pressure to innovate– and too much which will destroy it. On the other side, too much resource – and we can relax, work in our comfort zone, draw on variations on established themes and try to make them work. Too little and we become paralysed.

What innovation management lessons can we take from this?

  1. Create the challenge – build a compelling vision, something to engage the energy

  2. Construct the sense of crisis – bring the constraints to the fore, demand a solution in spite of them

  3. Coach the team – many famous crisis innovation teams have leaders – like Kelly Johnson – whose role is working as coaches, challengers, guides

  4. Cultivate the team – diversity helps, drawing on different core knowledge but also on different personalities, perspectives, angles

  5. Enable co-operation – networking can often fill much of the resource gap. For example, 3M’s famous ‘bootlegging’ model is at heart a social process, depending on the community from which entrepreneurs can beg, borrow and otherwise pull together the resources they need

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