HBR: 'A healthy dose of constraints' can actually be good for innovation

Andrea Park - Print  | 

Contrary to popular belief, constraints such as strict rules and boundaries only stifle creativity and innovation when they arrive in excess, according to a recent Harvard Business Review article.

That is, constraints can actually drive creativity and foster a culture of innovation, as long as they are not so limiting that they prevent forward movement. Rather, per HBR, "constraints can foster innovation when they represent a motivating challenge and focus efforts on a more narrowly defined way forward."

The article's authors reviewed nearly 150 empirical studies on the effects of constraints on organizational innovation and found that "when there are no constraints on the creative process, complacency sets in and people follow what psychologists call the path of least resistance — they go for the most intuitive idea that comes to mind rather than investing in the development of better ideas."

In contrast, when moderate constraints are present, team members are forced to focus more deeply on the challenge at hand and seek solutions from atypical sources. Managers can therefore benefit from introducing constraints into various assignments and seeing what novel solutions team members dream up; in organizations with strong cultures of innovation, teams will be even more likely to approach obstacles with forward-thinking creativity.

"The next time you struggle with innovation, take a look at your constraints structure," according to HBR. "Instead of blaming them, frame them as creative challenges. Tell your employees that constraints help by ensuring focus and direction, and ask them to take up the challenge. Rather than providing ample resources and freedom to your innovation teams, try doing the opposite: cutting your budget, imposing a tighter deadline or setting more challenging performance criteria."

More articles on innovation:
Innovation among 10 most in-demand employee 'soft skills'
10 healthcare innovations named to Time's '100 Best Inventions of 2019'
Ochsner, BCBS of Louisiana launch 2020 health innovation challenge

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