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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Innovation is Solving Problems Without Constraints

by Jeffrey Phillips

Innovation is Solving Problems Without ConstraintsAs a person who started out as an engineer, I know that most engineers like to solve problems that are useful to society. Often this means that there are tradeoffs and constraints associated with any problem. Cars that get higher gas mileage may need to be lighter, but lighter cars don't survive crashes as well as heavy cars. So when we are presented a problem to solve or an opportunity to address, we often start out by trying to define the constraints.

These constraints could be based on technology issues, but are often based on other factors, like legal or regulatory issues, pricing or cost issues, distribution or transportation issues and so forth. When we as innovators agree to work within a set of bounds or constraints to solve problems, we are like the kids in kindergarten who are encouraged to "color within the lines" - that is, we accept the constraints and our thinking is guided by nudging right up next to the constraint, but never violating or ignoring the constraint. In this manner the constraint conforms our thinking and becomes a barrier. We don't challenge the constraint but accept it, and that governs the outcome. Since every other firm in the same space or industry is challenged with the same constraints, most of the solutions look very similar. We've become prisoners of our own thinking, happily limited in our degrees of freedom by constraints we've accepted.

Now, good innovators will tell you that what we need to do, at least temporarily, is to ignore the constraints and push beyond those barriers to generate solutions, then examine our recommended solutions to determine if they can deliver the same, or better, outcomes while conforming to the constraints, or changing the constraints to offer an even better solution. This approach considers the most optimal outcome, then seeks to determine whether or not it can fulfill the original constraints, or if those constraints can be changed. Innovation happens when someone in an industry, or, more typically, someone outside an industry who rejects the group think within the industry, decides to set aside the accepted norms and constraints and to think more expansively about the problem or opportunity. Then, with a number of possible solutions in hand, the innovator seeks alterations that will allow the new idea to fit within the constraints, or seeks to modify the constraints based on the value of his or her solution.

Recently I heard the VP of Innovation from RJR talk about their process for setting innovation guidelines. He called it a "fence setting" exercise. After all, we all want to know the "space" where we can innovate. His team is responsible for setting the "fences" which dictate the important "space" where the teams should generate ideas, but I suspect their approach is probably less focused on specific constraints and more focused on providing strategic guidance.

A combination of fence setting - to direct teams to focus their efforts on strategic innovation spaces or markets and unconstrained thinking - to move outside of the "color within the lines" mentality that limits our thinking - will drive new ideas within your organization that have real value.

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of "Make us more Innovative", and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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Blogger casparvanrijnbach said...


Very clear and simple statement. Of course one can innovate within the fences, but to really have business model or other radical innovation happen, one needs to go beyond the boundaries. And it is important to align where one wants to innovate. Sometimes to focus you just want to stick within the fences..Nothing wrong with incremental innovation for short term gains. Just can´t keep only focusing on that.

4:35 AM  
Anonymous Roy Jacobsen said...

What occurred to me on this is the issue of what are real constraints, and what are simply unquestioned assumptions. I think that many times, teams assume that some of their "constraints" are real when they just think they are.

3:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We all are good at trying the acknowledged path to get to a solution. But the question is - will it help if we add a bit of insanity to it? http://bit.ly/dvHv2Z

4:24 AM  

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