Constraint as an Innovation Driver

How Jack White and incompressible fluids can give your ideas more impact.
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The first installment of “Innovoyant,” a new column spotlighting the observations, provocations, and connections made by a ?What If! practitioner on the front lines of innovation.

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Whether or not you like Jack White and his music, you want him working on your innovation team.

While I’ve always been a fan of White and his three bands (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and The Dead Weather), his recent solo release Blunderbuss gave me occasion to revisit the connection between his artistic philosophy and one of my favorite principles in driving innovation to impact: the power of setting deliberate constraints.

Innovation parlance is rife with wide-open expansive terms such as “out of the box” and “blue sky.” Yes, these concepts are liberating and sexy. But while innovation is ultimately about expansion, getting there is often about setting and pushing on boundaries, guiderails, and constraints around a challenge to set the stage for the ultimate goal of market impact.

Having recently rewatched the 2009 documentary The White Stripes: Under the Great White Northern Lights, I became impressed by White’s intuitive grasp on this powerful force for getting innovation into the world.

In a side interview in the documentary, White sets up the situation that many of us feel as we strive to come up with new ways of doing things—either in our personal or professional lives. He talks about falling into a rhythm—a rut—that can keep us from starting the innovation journey in the first place:

"Before I played on stage, there was the thrill of going up there… 10 years later, that’s not new… I’m working in the same box. Sometimes I get tired of working in this box—forcing myself to come up with something…

"When I was an upholsterer, sometimes I wasn’t inspired to reupholster an old chair. It was work, you just forced yourself to do it… But by then end, you finish, and it looks good. Not every day you wake up and the clouds part and you write a great song. Sometimes you just get in there and force yourself to work, and something good comes out of it."

This is no small lesson. In business, innovation rarely happens by accident. While ‘ah-ha’ inspirations spontaneously occur, in my experience it’s only the teams that are behaving deliberately to look for and build new ways of doing things that ultimately unleash ideas with impact. And this is a lot of work—not unlike upholstering a chair.

Even as this deliberateness is needed to push us to think expansively, we must—almost counterintuitively—constrain ourselves at the same time in order to ensure success. Jack goes on to describe the self-imposed constraints he creates to drive his innovative energy in productive ways:

"I do things to naturally make it hard on myself… You book only 4 or 5 days in a studio to record an album… I’m using the same guitars on stage I used 10 years ago. They don’t stay in tune, so I’m constantly fighting against them… If I drop my pick, I don’t have one taped to my microphone stand—I have to run all the way to the back of the stage to get one… There’s no set list—each show has its own life… If I play an organ in a song, I put it just far enough away that I have to run to get to it—to work harder to get somewhere…

"These hundreds of things build tension… Deadlines make you creative… If you have all the time in the world, that kills creativity… If everything is pre-planned, and the tables are all set—nothing’s going to happen. Constriction forces us to create."

Does this seem crazy, or genius? It’s easy to attribute these self-imposed constraints to an, eclectic, artistic mind. But it’s actually a law of nature.

Consider liquids. They don’t compress—not like gases do, anyway. What this means is that if a liquid is constrained and forced, powerful things happen. This is why a steam shovel can use fluid in relatively small tubes and pistons to move huge weights. The fluid in these tubes, compressed by a small pump, exerts huge force against whatever the shovel is lifting.

These forces are at work in business, as well. Constraints, guardrails, barriers, rules—whatever we call them, they channel our innovative energy. By deliberately and strategically eliminating avenues of option, we plug holes in our mental hydraulic lines, and our creativity is concentrated where most commercially effective. Here are some examples I’ve experienced recently:

"Ticking Clock"

Some constraints aren’t self-imposed, but simply exist. However, how we view and use them to our advantage is still by choice. I recently worked with a spirits company on a fast and furious example. The objective was to head off a blockbuster competitive product that was rapidly stealing ‘share of shot glass’ from a desirable consumer base. The team’s goal was to create and launch a new spirit concept, start to finish, in less than a year. To make this happen took a very different style of project. On a Tuesday morning, we ideated with bartenders, wrote concepts, and built those with consumers that night. On Wednesday, we took the strongest of those, rewrote them, and ran them past two more groups of consumers. By Thursday, we knew the right answer, which was later confirmed by quant testing. The resulting concept is slated to launch this summer.

"No-Fly Zone"

Aligning around what you’re not trying to accomplish is just as valuable as defining what is going to be done. When colleagues of mine helped a major pharma company create new lines of business for a blockbuster drug going off patent, one of the key debates they had at the outset of the initiative was whether the molecule—the ‘drug’ itself—would be involved in the solutions. It was a profound and fundamental decision, and not an easy one to make. Ultimately, the choice was made to exclude the molecule. You can imagine that this limited the ‘blue sky’ territories and options the team might have imagined. However, it allowed them to create an incredibly creative and commercially viable solution with the brand at the core—which is being incubated right now. Because of this constraint, the team’s creative energy was focused, freed of the regulatory entanglements the molecule would have brought to the party.

"No Jetsons Cars"

There are many times when not worrying about how exactly to get something produced or packaged or formulated is a wonderful way to expand a team’s thinking and fuel creativity. However, keeping it real can be just as expansive. Recently, partnering with a nutritional firm to create new types of supplements, we added a constraint requiring us to link any idea we had very clearly to clinical and scientific realities from the start. We built a team heavy with members of the R&D and clinical nutrition teams. By getting these people engaged in the right way, early on, they brought amazing, crazy science to the process early on, and helped us build unique ideas based on solid science.

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The setting of constraints can’t be left to chance—it must be deliberate. Here are some principles:

Draw them sharply. The objective, the breadth of the initiative, the subject matter itself, an organization’s capabilities, politics, and history—they all play into constraint selection. Consider all the factors at play, and make sure the constraints are grounded in the realities of the project.

Set them, then attack. Constraints must be pushed and challenged as they are set to make sure they are not too restrictive. Throw real example outcomes at your constraints, and ask, “Would we be happy if we blocked this path?” If not, loosen the constraint to allow for more flexibility.

Use them throughout. It is the naïve innovator who applies the barriers of commerciality, science, and company politics only at the end, after the ideas have been born. Use constraints as tools, not just filters, to conceive of and shape thinking throughout the whole process.

Try baking these principles into your next project. See what impact you can drive with better constraints. You’ll make your team—not to mention Jack White—proud.

Illustration by Kris Fillon.

FROM the greenhouse