Why Innovators Love Constraints

Harvard Business Review

While dreaming and disrupting has unfettered me in many ways, it has shackled me in others. One of the most unexpected was losing a part of my identity. Once the rush of leaving a name-brand corporation wore off, it began to seep in that I could no longer call someone and say "Whitney Johnson, Merrill Lynch." It was just Whitney Johnson. I also became reacquainted with the immediate concern of putting food on the table whilst on an entrepreneurial thrill ride to zero cash flow.

There's a good dose of cosmic payback in all this. For years I pontificated about the importance of bootstrapping a business without having any firsthand notion of belt-tightening. Nearly a decade later, I find myself almost a fan of constraints. If you, like me, are a foot-dragging devotee, consider the following:

Fewer resources produce proximity; proximity drives innovation. When I worked for a bulge bracket Wall Street firm, our family lived in a very large home; had we chosen to, we could literally have lived separate lives and rarely interacted. When I quit my job to become an entrepreneur, we downsized, moving into a home with ¼ of our former living space. No longer having a beautiful space to entertain sometimes makes me wistful. But most days I love our closer quarters. We bump up against one another, negotiate who sits where, who washes the dishes when and who watches what. Proximity can lead to friction, and friction can rub people raw. But it can also light a fire, one that warms and binds us into a family.

Workplace proximity can be equally productive. High-tech giant Adobe recently opened a striking new building in Lehi, Utah specifically designed to create an ecology of planned and unplanned cooperation and innovation among its employees. 85% of the interior is open workspace with only 15% devoted to offices. The building includes a full basketball court and extensive fitness areas, pool tables, a café and eating/lounging area — all to encourage employees to meet and interact with each other. Adobe hopes that by pushing people out of offices, their employees will run into each other more often, spontaneously generating ideas and solutions.

A sense of collaboration and immediacy often happens as people who are cash poor or without needed resources (e.g. young professional, entrepreneur, non-profit), are required to barter, to figure out what they have to bring to the table. Barter, I find, drives engagement in a deeper way than when you are simply dealing with money. The truth is we often don't experience proximity unless we are forced to. If you want to form meaningful bonds that lead to productive collaboration and innovation, make room for more close encounters.

Constraints lead to faster feedback. Whether they are limits on space, time, money or other resources, constraints can improve our agility and get our synapses firing at lightning speed. Author Daniel Coyle posits that skateboarders are some of the quickest learners in the world, because they receive incredibly fast and useful feedback — every action, every move they make has an immediate consequence. There are numerous instances of coaches in various sports (soccer, swimming, baseball) shrinking the space their athletes train in to increase reps and improve feedback. When there is less of a cushion between oneself and failure, innovation becomes a necessity.

A compelling example of this in the business world is Lit Motors. Following Eric Ries' Lean Start-up methodology, instead of going out and raising VC money to manufacture a new electric automobile, Daniel Kim funded his start-up through pre-orders. With a completed prototype in hand, Lit Motors has proven the power of financial constraints. "We're at the same place that Tesla was at after $7 million in investment after only $780,000. We've been incredibly resourceful," Kim states in a recent interview in The Atlantic. Clearly, Kim has been forced to make smart choices to keep his start-up costs low, and investors are eager to work with him because of it. The fact is that we are always going to be resource-constrained, but a willingness to work with our limitations may make all the difference in getting an idea off the ground.

Constraints can be an indispensable tool of creation. I like to write — or rather, I like what I've written when I finish writing. The actual process is a mental wrestling match, and prone to fits of desperation. The act of writing is much easier (and frequently more interesting) when someone says, "Here's a topic, now write," as did my editor with "Instead of Making Resolutions, Dream." George Eliot writes in Daniel Deronda, 'Tis a condition apt to befall a life too much at large, unmoulded by the pressure of obligation: Nam deteriores omnes sumu licentiae (with too much freedom, we all deteriorate.)

When it comes to writing, or building a business, we may chafe against constraints, imposed or otherwise. But without any constraints, we are creating ex nihilo, and can easily lose our way. Paradoxically then, a constraint can become a tool of creation. A beautiful example of this is Ave Maria composed by Charles Gounod. He could have started anywhere, but he chose to begin with the constraint of composing a melody over Bach's Prelude No. 1 in C Major. By giving himself something to bump up against, Gounod wrote one of the most beloved and enduring songs of all time.

A tightly-lidded box can stifle and suffocate. It can motivate us to figure out how get outside the box. To make choices about how we will expend the resources we do have available to us, to find cheaper, more nimble ways of doing something as a person - and as a corporation. Our perceived limitations may give us direction on where we might play, or want to play. Indeed, if we will let them, constraints can (and will) drive us to disruption.

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