Which Box Are You In?

By Jim Euchner, Editor-in-Chief, RTM

Constraints are funny things. They can box you in, or they can inspire you.

A Shakespearean sonnet is constrained by the dimensions of its form: 14 lines, iambic pentameter, clear rhyme scheme, closing couplet. Yet it has consistently led to beautiful poetry. Has the form contributed to the beauty, or would it have emerged just as beautifully from blank verse?

Among the most awe-inspiring of Michelangelo’s statues are the Captives—sculptures that depict figures emerging from the stone. They are struggling, but they are becoming free. The blocks of inert stone have come alive. What is the role of the marble, with its imperfections, in this? Did the material inspire the art, or was it the other way around?

Is it possible to go too far in using constraints to spur creativity? There is a literary technique known as constrained writing, in which authors bind themselves to certain arbitrary rules. The most prominent, known as lipogram, outlaws a given letter. Thurber’s “The Wonderful O” is a charming example; Gadsby: A Story of Over 50,000 Words Without Using the Letter ‘E’, by Ernest Vincent Wright, may have gone too far (despite its cult following).

I have wondered about these things often in the context of innovation, where constraints—explicit and implicit—abound. Is it better that these constraints be embraced, or is it better to have the freedom to create without boundaries? Does the freedom of Google’s 20 percent rule lead to innovation, or diminish it? Do tight budgets kill innovation or spur it?

I once asked a great inventor—a man who has 120 patents to his name in a wide variety of fields—where he got the idea for one of his most valuable inventions. It was, he said, born of a constraint. He was told that he needed to create a printer at half the cost that he had been targeting or the project was over. As he bemoaned the problem over a beer with a colleague, they had an idea for simulating a large array of print jets by varying the volume of ink ejected by a smaller number. Without the constraint, there would have been no invention.

Innovators face many constraints—in their budgets, in the time frames they must meet, in manufacturing requirements, regulatory demands, and cost targets for the final product. Handled badly, such constraints can lead to pedestrian work that reveals each compromise and is uninspiring to the market. Handled well, they can lead to elegant solutions that people love.

Cost constraints are among the most common, and most difficult, to navigate. By forcing innovators to rethink the essentials, they also frequently produce the most elegant solutions. In The Business Solution to Poverty (reviewed in this issue), Paul Polak offers one approach for navigating resource constraints, Zero-Based Design. In advocating the power of business to improve the lives of the very poorest of the poor, Polak challenges the assumption that providing products that improve the lives of the poor—and lift them out of poverty—cannot be profitable. The innovation he espouses is driven heavily by constraints, especially the need for radical affordability. His case stories illustrate that starting with an audacious cost goal can spur radically new thinking.

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