Why Constraints Are Good for Innovation

Effects of Constraints on Innovation and Creativity

While most people might assume that constraints have a negative effect on innovation, Alexander Djerassi thinks differently. Limiting options may seem counterintuitive when it comes to boosting creativity, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. An innovative mind working within a framework without constraint lacks any and all focus. When limits are placed on them, whether that be limited resources, limited time, or limited manpower, it gives the creative mind an actual problem to solve.

These aren’t just Djerassi’s thoughts either, this creed can be found throughout numerous different professions and disciplines. Whether it’s music in the case of Jack White playing on a crudely made one string guitar made out of a coke bottle and a two-by-four, or in literature with the tale of Ernest Hemingway betting his friends he could produce a story in only 6 words resulting in “For sale: Baby Shoes Never Worn”, or even in engineering with General Electrics project to produce a reliably transportable ECG machine on a shoestring budget of $500,000.

It isn’t even just real world examples that show how innovation and constraints are a perfect match, the efficacy of this method in bolstering creativity has been laboratory tested. Studied in numerous universities by numberless scientists, over and over again the results clearly show that uninhibited freedom in research and development teams actually leads to less successful teams than those that have proper constraints and structures put in place.

Now this gets into a very important aspect of this topic that industry leaders stress when speaking on management, just having constraints isn’t inherently positive. They have to be strategic; they have to be beneficial, and they have to make sense within the framework of the project that’s being worked on. Placing limits on your team just for the sake of placing limits can lead to just as disastrous results as that of having no limits set at all. A good example of this comes from the US military, with the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, designed to be a multi-role stealth fighter, the project began in 1996 and was designed to be an affordable jet craft for use in various missions. The project, however, was given unlimited funding, and the budget ballooned for nearly a decade, producing aircraft that were only slightly better than their predecessor yet cost an incredible amount more, almost half a trillion for acquisition, and over a trillion for lifetime maintenance. This is in stark contrast to the innovation that took place in the early 40’s, during the height of World War II, with resources heavily divided and incredible stress on all forms of civilian life, scientists of that time came together and created some of the most innovative weaponry and technological advancements in history. Alexander Djerassi believes that incorporating some of these stresses organically into a team can build a strong foundation for innovation and help build something that stands the test of time, like enterprising young men have found over the years.

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