Updated: Jul 25
Or: Constraint Led Innovation
Have you ever thought that you just need more time for a project? That you need more money, more support, more space or more staff to complete the work appropriately? These are typical constraints that are ever present in work environments. It is typical for every part of life that we have constraints, and it is no different in business or for social organizations.
I would like to argue that our constraints are actually what lead to creativity.
For every process, the limitations begin with the inputs that are needed to complete the process. This includes resources which are typically expressed as money but can include physical resources, location or space availability, the time that is required for either a process to cycle or for people to complete their tasks, as well as the people who are available to be a part of the process. There are other constraints, but these are the most common.
Constraint led innovation is based on finding creative solutions to the problems related with high cost, and lack of space, time, and people.
Money is likely the easiest difficulty to bring up, because it is always a problem for any organization. For business, it is the requirement of being profitable enough to maintain operation and achieve their goals, whether that is profit for shareholders or addressing some social problem. For nonprofit organizations finding sources of resources to achieve their goals is a constant problem.
Given that resources are nearly always scarce, there must be better ways of dealing with them. First off, there are some ways to reduce the need for more money to come in through strategic partnerships with organizations that are already established. This would be using the value of your network to come up with the shortfall in your resources.
It is also possible to find ways to extend the lifespan of items that would normally have to be replaced regularly. There is often a choice to repair an object that you have rather than to purchase a new one when it is not working as it should.
Finally, when starting operations, you can build your plans based on the objects, connections and network that you already have rather than spending money on buying new objects or spending to create new connections. Using what you already have available is a great way to reduce your costs.
Unless you’re working in a field where your office is wherever your laptop is, finding the space required to make something work is also a challenge that you have to deal with. Everything from farming to mental health programs need to have some form of space to work.
When considering your work, what are the most important pieces that you have to have in your space to be able to work effectively? Do you need to be close to other businesses or organizations that are related to what you do? These are your space needs.
There are some great ways to creatively solve space problems. One of the solutions for small business and entrepreneurs has been the growth of co-working spaces. Individuals or groups can rent desks in shared office space with access to meeting rooms. Another solution can be to find partners that are working in a similar industry or social sphere and build a space that has some shared elements. This starts with shared washrooms but can extend to having a shared reception and shared board room, reducing the costs for each organization involved.
For example, North Forge is an economic development agency, which has co-working space and a fabrication shop at the same location for fast idea generation and prototyping.
Time is a big deal when it comes to restricting what your organization can do. Time is what puts pressure on every other constraint. It is what pushes budgets, locks up meeting rooms and uses staff hours. Time is what forces decisions to be made and pushes the results of those decisions back at us.
Constraint led innovation will push you to consider what is possible because of the time that you have available. If you can only meet in the evenings, don’t focus on what opportunities you miss out on during work hours, but instead look at what is now possible because you have to meet in the evenings. This constraint will direct how you decide what is possible and will help you guide the direction of your organization’s future.
Another problem that we often have to deal with is finding the right people. Each of the people that you work with have specific strengths, weaknesses, and capacities. Some people are suited to certain tasks usually directed by their training and interests. If you have people that are generalists, you aren’t likely to start the next big Silicon Valley tech firm.
However, the people you work with have strengths and a breadth of experience that you can use to achieve your goals. With some creative thinking about who to assign to what kinds of tasks, and when to ask them to work outside of their assigned role can lead to some creative solutions that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
The strength of your network also plays into the restrictions that come with a team of people. Often if you don’t know someone who can do something that you need done, you will know somebody else who does. Calling on people you know for assistance can lead to creative solutions in difficult situations.
“When we face an obstacle or a barrier or limitation, we don’t see that as a negative, we see that as fertile ground for creativity so that we are forced to think creatively to solve a problem.” – Roger Berrington, Volunteer Executive Director of CanU
I interviewed Roger Berrington recently for my podcast and he uses constraint led innovation as the philosophical foundation for CanU. CanU is a framework that has built programs that help school age kids have experiences in university settings run by university student volunteers.
As a nonprofit that works with the school systems and doesn’t have lots of extra money lying around, he needed to find some creative solutions to the problems of running an organization like this.
When he first started out, he tried having the programs in schools around Winnipeg, but he found that the university students couldn’t get to the programs. The solution that he brought forward is that if they were able to find a way to get the kids to the university then the university students would be able to volunteer more effectively.
Now, this decision did create some other short term problems that needed to be sorted through, but now that it has been running for 8 years, it serves as the backbone for their programming.
Constraint led innovation is a way of thinking about problem solving that CanU has been using and teaching to the kids in it’s programs and has helped lead it to its current success. Think about how you might be able to creatively find solutions to the constraints that have held you back.
Just remember, keep it simple.