A well-accepted principle in innovation is that the innovation team must approach the innovation need with creativity. The phrase often used is “thinking outside the box.” But what does that really mean. What is the “box?”
Well a box has six sides if you include the top and bottom. And there are six types of constraints that can limit the path of innovation. Each of these constraints can be broken. The fewer the constraints on your team, the more likely you are to get meaningful innovation. Let’s look at each of these six sides of the innovation box.
Technology Constraint. This constraint is the physics (or chemistry or biology) of the product or service. The laws of nature have limits. Our periodic table has only 118 elements. Water freezes and ice melts at specific temperatures. Copper conduct electricity and glass does not.
The only way to break this constraint is to change the physics by changing the technology you are using. For instance contractors and plumbers looking for an approach to installing plumbing in a structure that was easy, low cost, and resistant to breaks and cracks in freezing temperatures had to change from copper to PEX (cross-linked polyethylene) pipes.
Application Constraint. This constraint is the task or use to which the product or service is applied. Many products and services are designed to work well for a particular application. Other applications were never considered when the original innovation took place. Using the product or service in a new application can create new paths for innovation.
To break this constraint you must consider the conditions and context of a new application. Examine the assumptions inherent in the original application and those in the new application. The different assumptions will point to new paths for innovation. For instance, the original application of a telephone was to communicate between two individuals who were not co-located. An assumption was that an individual was present at each telephone. By changing the application to a messaging system, the assumption of the physical presence of an individual on each phone could be removed. This led to the innovation of voice mail.
Industry Constraint. This constraint is the industry regulatory requirements and standards. Often the standards and regulations are based upon particular technology and product or service embodiment. These standards constrain the potential innovation paths. An innovative approach using a different technology may not be compatible with the current regulations or standards.
To break this constraint you must convince the regulatory bodies and standards agencies that they are being too restrictive. This effort is often more about politics and vested interests than it is about technology or product performance. For instance, for years AT&T and its Bell phone company subsidiaries controlled telephone service. They had regulations concerning what was allowed and was not allowed on the telephone system. Once deregulation occurred, the telecommunication industry and cellular communication has exploded with innovation.
Organization Constraint. This constraint is the organization systems, procedures and culture in which the potential innovators operate. This includes the work space, the work authorization process, the risk sensitivity of the organization, and the rewards and recognition system. Management systems like Lean and Six Sigma which strive to eliminate waste and variation often become innovation suppressors.
To break this constraint you must create a culture that encourages risk taking and creativity. This is more than just a slogan about being innovative, it includes the business processes that review and approve new ideas. The organization needs to reward risk taking and creativity which means deviating from tradition and the existing product or process baselines. Slow bureaucratic processes with numerous reviews and delays waiting for the next budget cycle will kill innovative ideas. A great example of this is the Department of Defense and the Defense Acquisition Cycle. By the time many new systems get to the field they are already out of date.
Team Constraint. This constraint is the skills, background, and personalities of those working on the innovation team. The broader the experiences and more diversity on the team, the more likely the team will have creative ideas. However, the broader the experiences and more diversity on the team, the harder it is to get the team working together on a common goal. The team also needs to have someone with the personality to challenge and push the team to make trade-offs and turn the ideas into actual products or services.
This is often the easiest constraint to break but the hardest to sustain. Through hiring – either full-time or temporary – and training you can quickly break this constraint. However, a change in team members can result in the resurfacing of this constraint. Sometimes even the current team can switch from creative and innovative work practices to a sterile and hostile environment due to poor interpersonal skills among team members. An excellent example is the experience at Apple. Steve Jobs created a very innovative culture and teams, but at times the atmosphere was harsh and demanding. Jobs left the company and the innovation pipeline started to dry up. Jobs came back and there was another explosion of innovation.
Resource Constraint. The sixth constraint is resources – time and money. This is possibly the easiest constraint to understand. Innovation often requires multiple iterations of the new product or service as unexpected or unforeseen challenges arise and must be resolved. The innovation often leads to additional business challenges. Does the innovation now use software? There may be compatibility issues with other systems. Does the innovation open up new markets? There are now logistics, tax, and translation problems that we never had before.
To break this constraint the innovator requires time and money. Large corporations will often have the resources to sustain an innovation effort. They just need the vision and confidence to see it through. Small start-up companies must seek angel investors or venture capital to overcome this constraint. A classic example of this constraint was Thomas Edison’s work to create a commercially viable incandescent light bulb. It took over 1,000 experiments and two years of testing to find a design that was commercially viable.
As you plan your innovation efforts, consider breaking the constraints on all sides of the innovation box. Don’t limit yourself to just one or two sides. The fewer the constraints on your innovation team, the more likely you are to get a steady stream of high value innovations.