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No Better Time to Consider the Theory of Constraints

February 18, 2022


Just imagine what you could do with unlimited time and resources. Given no constraints, many of us probably believe we could be more creative. The truth, however, may be just the opposite. The more constraints we face the more creative we may become. This counterintuitive concept is often called the theory of constraints. MIT professor Fiona Murray (@Fiona_MIT) and Elsbeth Johnson (@elsbeth_johnson), founder of SystemShift, write, “While unshackled creativity might intuitively seem to be the best route to novelty, actually some of the most innovative outcomes are produced when innovation is constrained.”[1]


The late, great composer Igor Stravinsky once stated, “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.” That’s just a fancy way of stating what the late Ernest (Lord) Rutherford, father of nuclear physics, said more bluntly: “We have no money; therefore, we must think.” Of course, money is only one of the constraints people and organizations can face. Journalist Jake Wilder explains, “We tend to see constraints as something that holds us back. We tend to view them as a limit to our creative options. Yet we take this view to our detriment. Constraints can provide the key to greater innovation and better solutions. They can push us away from the status quo and into new ways of thinking.”[2]


The Theory of Constraints


The theory of constraints suggests that the more obstacles one faces the more deeply one must think in order to find solutions. Journalist Thomas Oppong explains, “Obstacles boost brainpower. Constraints: you actually need them to get good at creating something remarkable. You need the limitations to inspire better thinking — thinking that challenges the status quo. Your brain is constantly in efficient mode, looking for ways to use less energy. And often, unless forced, you don’t think much at all. Constraints force you to think.”[3] In his book entitled Math with Bad Drawings, Ben Orlin (@benorlin) writes, “Creativity is what happens when a mind encounters an obstacle. It’s the human process of finding a way through, over, around, or beneath. No obstacle, no creativity.”


Simone Ahuja (@SimoneAhuja), an innovation strategist and Founder of Blood Orange, agrees that the theory of constraints should be taken seriously by organizations facing challenges — and organizations face challenges. She explains, “We need constraints for innovation. It’s counterintuitive at first — why would being more constrained or having fewer resources lead to great outcomes? But it can happen. Constraints force us to rethink our priorities and how we use our time, and take stock of the resources we already have (rather than waiting for what we think we need). Constraints force us to get crystal clear about the problem we’re solving, and they help us get in the mindset to solve it efficiently and effectively.”[4]


The staff at Twenty One Toys writes, “As innovation becomes more and more critical to solving the big challenges of the 21st century, people have been trying to figure out how they can manufacture the conditions for successful innovation. The Harvard Business Review found and reviewed 145 studies that looked at how constraints can impact innovation and creativity. It turns out that having no constraints is actually worse than having no limits.”[5]


Innovation and Constraints


Innovation is most often about solving a problem or overcoming a challenge. Rarely do those facing the obstacle or challenge have unlimited time and resources to address it. Scott Amyx (@ScottSAmyx), Managing Partner at Astor Perkins, observes that innovation teams rarely appreciate the constraints they face. He asks, “What is one of the most frequent points of feedback that leaders receive from innovation teams? ‘We don’t have enough budget, people and/or time.’ Yet, organizations, even the multibillion-dollar publicly traded companies, work under constraints.”[6]


According to Murray and Johnson, the two most important constraints for innovation teams are outcome and time. They explain, “The key feature of the outcome constraint is, unsurprisingly, its focus on the end result. It defines what a good solution does for users, payers, or investors rather than the process or rules by which it’s produced. … The second useful constraint is a deadline. The relationship between time pressure and performance is well established: the Yerkes-Dodson Law has been around since 1908. People benefit from being under some pressure because it makes them focus and work faster, so long as people believe that not meeting the deadline has real consequences — we all know the difference between a real deadline and a fake one — and provided the pressure is not so high that it triggers stress and other performance-killing reactions.”


The staff at Twenty One Toys suggests two other useful constraints: Limited inputs and an enforced process. They write, “Limiting the resources, human capital, or time available to complete the project can challenge you to come up with creative ways to use what you have. Limited inputs are also the most likely type of constraint that is beyond the control of the project manager, so if you’re choosing to further limit input, make sure that you have left your team with enough resources and time to succeed.” With regards to using an enforced process, the staff notes, “If you’ve ever used a project management system like Agile or SCRUM, you’ve used an enforced process as a constraint. But an enforced process might also be something like Pixar’s Braintrust method, which is designed to keep their film projects focused and provide candid feedback from a more objective standpoint than the people who are working on the project from day to day. One of the benefits of enforced process constraints is that they can often be applied to multiple projects, allowing your team to get comfortable with the process and to thrive within it.”


Concluding Thoughts


Business consultant Jeff Gothelf (@jboogie) believes the notion of thinking outside the box is overblown. His recommendation, “Think inside this box!”[7] He explains, “There’s a general feeling with many of the teams I work with that their hands are tied. They’re tied by budgets, workplace technology, micromanaging bosses, unwilling partners and a bubbling cauldron of other constraints. And it’s these constraints that keep teams from innovating, implementing agile ways of working and building and retaining top-quality teams. Much of the time, if a team can’t achieve a goal it’s been tasked with, the blame falls to the constraints. You can recognize this phenomenon easily because the statements that give it away always start with the same phrase, ‘…if we only had.’ … No situation is ideal and no team has everything it needs or could need. Every team works with constraints. It is perhaps surprising then to realize that the creativity, innovation and ultimately the solutions the team is seeking are in fact inspired by these constraints.” I would have changed Gothelf’s motto to read: Think outside the box, but work within the box.


Although it sounds contrarian to shackle innovation teams with constraints, Gothelf believes too few constraints can dampen innovation. “Constraints provide focus and direction,” he writes. “They force tough prioritization decisions and push the team to be entrepreneurial — to use whatever is available to them to get the job done as best they can. Give a team too few constraints and you’ll often find them spinning and churning on ideas unable to make decisions. Find the right set of constraints and you’ll be amazed what your team produces.”


[1] Fiona Murray and Elsbeth Johnson, “Innovation Starts with Defining the Right Constraints,” Harvard Business Review, 5 April 2021.
[2] Jake Wilder, “To Improve Innovation, Embrace Your Constraints,” Medium, 27 June 2020.
[3] Thomas Oppong, “For A More Creative Brain, Embrace Constraints,” Inc., 30 November 2017.
[4] Simone Ahuja, “Rethinking constraints as a catalyst for innovation,” Fast Company, 21 September 2021.
[5] Staff, “Creativity Thrives Under Constraints,” Twenty One Toys Blog, 2021.
[6] Scott Amyx, “How Constraints Help Or Inhibit Innovation,” Forbes, 3 September 2019.
[7] Jeff Gothelf, “Constraints Are the Hidden Source of Innovation,” LinkedIn, 3 February 2021.

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