Innovating within constraints

I have been reading some pretty heady stuff recently, especially around creativity and innovation. I have been thoroughly convinced of the additive and connective nature of innovation – the idea that innovative thinkers are usually those who can combine existing elements in novel ways, thereby advancing the field in which they work (see Everything is a Remix for some great examples). I find this a compelling way to think about innovation. Rather than the isolated genius struck by a new thought as if by lightning, innovation by connection and addition allows us lesser mortals to practice the type of thinking that fosters innovation and actually improve at it. The fact that this idea is strange – the idea of “getting better” at creativity – is itself a sign of how deep the isolated genius idea permeates our perception of innovation.

But almost at the same time that I think this, I find another thought interrupting me: we all work within constraints. I want to be very clear here: I think some innovations do (and should) break open constraints and expand the boundaries of the possible. One look at the types of connected networks we’re building for ourselves should be enough to convince just about any one of this fact. But in other contexts we have defined constraints out of which we cannot innovate ourselves. Work constraints, budget constraints, time constraints (the list goes on and on) all help delineate the space in which we can innovate.

I find myself wondering if innovating within defined constraints can be understood as a subset of this idea of additive or connective creativity. I think that finding innovative ways to accomplish goals that seem out of reach certainly fits this paradigm. Likewise,  coming up with new ways to use existing tools certainly shows creativity. But what about things that we might call process improvements, like concocting new methods to improve the efficiency of a process or devising new methods for time management (things like GTD come to mind here)? Are these really innovations, or are they something else? Is “innovating within the realm of the possible” really innovation? Or does innovation contain within itself the idea of moving beyond the boundaries of what is understood to be possible?

In a certain respect I am beginning to think that constraints are a natural complement to innovative thinking. Physicists run up against lots of constraints in their work – the so-called “laws” of nature – and still manage to be innovative. I wonder if taking the attitude that constraints are drivers of innovation rather than its natural enemy would be a better way to foster the idea that one can get better at creativity by practicing. Or does this turn into a severely limiting frame of mind that detracts from one’s ability to “think big” and try to move beyond one’s constraints? Something tells me I might be thinking about this question for some time to come.


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