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In the pause: The best innovation and creative processes have constraints

A canvas is only so big, a building so tall, a stage so wide, and a novel so long. The best creative projects have limits. Someone recently told me that people who work in innovation have to be comfortable with ambiguity and nebulous situations. I completely disagree. After nearly two decades of working in product development, innovation, and creative industries I can tell you that people who have an impact through innovation have to be comfortable with working within constraints.

Now, if you’re in the rare (and quite frankly, boring, at least to me) situation of not needing to have an impact, then do whatever you want. If you have all the time, money, and energy in the world, then the sky’s the limit. This article isn’t for you. It’s for the rest of us who have to operate in reality and who care about building projects that build a better world.

When I was just out of business school, I had an amazing boss, Bob G., who taught me that constraints are gifts. Now in my writing work with my Darden professor, Ed Freeman, we’re talking about how valuable the idea of limitation is when it comes to the human imagination. Constraints don’t prevent us from being creative; they actually free us. Once we have some definition, then we can let our imaginations run wild while being confident in the fact that we’re making progress.

We might be designing a product or service for a particular group of people. With that definition to the project, we can really delve into the process of discovering what this group of people wants or needs and why. That’s some of the most interesting work we can do in innovation.

Perhaps there is a specific social issue we want to tackle – ending hunger, alleviating poverty, or advocating for equality. Those goals have very different objectives and methods. To develop the most effective programs, we have to get specific about what we want to do and have a deep understanding of how what we choose to do will make a difference.

In short, to be creative and effective, we’ve got to eliminate the unnecessary so the necessary can speak. We’ve got to dampen the noise so the message can be heard. And the best way to do that is to define our limits.

So the next time you have a project in front of you that has constraints, don’t curse them. Thank them. They are there to help you focus and give you meaning. Use them wisely.

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