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Constraint drives innovation

July 25, 2019.

Innovation is not just about creating products that change the world; it is present in all inventions that go beyond the ordinary, no matter how modestly. However, it doesn’t spring out of nowhere. Specific conditions and a certain state of mind are conducive to innovation, as is the existence of constraints.

Often, humans are content to keep doing the same thing they’ve always done: it’s simpler and it limits the risks and outlay of effort. Only when strong constraints take us out of our comfort zone do we strive for unique and innovative solutions.

How do you identify those constraints that will prompt innovation, and how do you make sure that they will lead to something that generates real value? It’s a question worth asking. For example, we see many phone manufacturers who, in their race for innovation, added features that were technically innovative but didn’t address any real problem, or that offered inadequate solutions to problems. Simply put, real innovation has to solve a problem. If we first innovate and then set out to find a problem that this innovation might address, it’s likely to be useless or inappropriate.

One example is Apple’s 3D Touch. From a technological point of view, it was innovative, but from a user-experience perspective, it didn’t solve a major problem and the proposed solution was ineffective. 3D Touch recognizes different levels of pressure on the touch screen, but the function was not essential and many users didn’t even know it existed. Apple ended up removing this feature from its entry-level models and will probably remove it from all models coming out in 2019.

Essentially, the purpose of innovation is to solve a problem. The goal of solving a problem imposes a constraint, and this constraint generates innovation. In other words: to innovate, first identify a problem that needs to be solved. The problem can be a major issue or a mundane one, like an annoying detail of daily life that we have learned to cope with and that we’ve become barely aware of.

Innovation begins when we put words to the problem, when we describe it as an obstacle in need of a solution. We can no longer follow what was apparently the straightest path, because it is now blocked by the problem. This imposes a constraint on the solution we seek to implement, and this constraint forces us to look for paths that we would not have considered otherwise.

This phase of identifying and naming the problem and the approach to finding a solution are fundamental for innovation. There must be an understanding of this process at all levels of a project’s management to create conditions that foster innovation. Sometimes the constraints imposed on a team may seem insurmountable. The project managers should be ready to handle this situation by providing the necessary means, support and tools for the team to move forward in this stressful situation, to maintain morale and to strive for excellence. In a future article, we will discuss the different ways to support a team under such conditions.

One ground-breaking innovation, which seems obvious today but was not at the time and required major work, was the iPhone user interface. When Steve Jobs created the iPhone at the time of Pocket PCs and other pseudo smart phones, he didn’t want a stylus because users weren’t comfortable with it (and also because someone at Microsoft whom he couldn’t stand was coming up with a tablet and stylus). In a world where all the portable systems used pens on small screens that were overloaded with information, verbalizing the problem and imagining that you only had to use your fingers was implausible and put a heavy constraint on the engineers who had to find a solution.

The biggest difficulty was that no-one knew how to improve user experience by substituting a system that uses a precise stylus with one that uses fat fingers to interact with a lot of data on a small screen. Apple engineers had to imagine a whole new human-machine interaction and create a whole new operating system around this paradigm. They had to rethink how to scroll data, how to indicate the end-of-screen boundary, how to present data efficiently and accessibly while displaying less stuff on the screen, how applications should behave, etc. Today it seems obvious, but at the time when the problem was stated and the constraint explained, it must have seemed impossible.

Goes to show that innovation requires courage, perseverance, a lot of work and also a fair amount of intuition to sense that an effective solution is around the corner.

Sometimes, the constraint that comes from verbalizing a problem is negligible: once the problem is named and the constraint exposed, the solution appears obvious. How often have you lived with a problem without really realizing it or trying to solve it? Then you discover a small piece of software that solves your problem and you think to yourself, “How did I not think of it before, it’s so simple and obvious!” This doesn’t make it less of an innovation.

Moreover, don’t be fooled by the apparent simplicity of an innovation. As we saw with the iPhone user interface, some of the best innovations that required the most work appear simple or obvious, precisely because the solution is so brilliant and efficient. It nevertheless required a lot of effort, trial and error.

Innovation is an inexhaustible topic. Following articles will cover some aspects in-depth, such as:

  • Ways to generate innovation-friendly constraints in various business sectors
  • Managing change and heavy constraints in a team
  • How to detect innovation that brings real value to a product

And more…