People think that constraints are innovation inhibitors. They aren’t. Unconstrained efforts are often undisciplined efforts that lead to immaterial results. The right constraints in the right places can be innovation accelerators. Constraints can focus creativity where it is most needed. Constraints can help ensure investment flows to where it provides the highest returns.
The advice is a good one. It’s a good starting point for thinking about the value of putting focus on organizational innovation efforts. It dovetails with this little-known fact:
Each of us have 15,000 thoughts per day
Can you believe that? Over the course of a 5-day work week, we have 75,000 thoughts. That’s some serious idea potential.
And that’s the issue. It’s a whole lot of potential. But unpacking the ideas that are real, and that will make a material difference, means putting some constraints on what comes out of those 75,000 weekly thoughts.
Three reasons for constraints are put forward in this post:
- Paradox of choice
- Sense of engagement
- Urgency through scarcity
Constraints are one of the Eight Principles of Innovation Management.
The Paradox of Choice
In 2004, Barry Schwartz published The Paradox of Choice. In the book, he makes a well-grounded argument that the emergence of many choices actually has a debilitating effect on our ability to choose. This review of the book by David Pitt for Booklist provides a good summary:
We are, the author suggests, overwhelmed by choice, and that’s not such a good thing. Schwartz tells us that constantly being asked to make choices, even about the simplest things, forces us to “invest time, energy, and no small amount of self-doubt, and dread.” There comes a point, he contends, at which choice becomes debilitating rather than liberating.
That can be the challenge in eliciting ideas from an organization with tens of thousands of employees. Putting each of them in a position to decide which of the ideas they have are worthy takes time. It takes energy. And certainly there may be some doubt about whether anyone will care about an idea, or whether the posting the idea will “look bad”.
If that’s the case, that’s the organization’s loss. Loss of a potentially good idea. Loss of a building block in creating a more energetic innovation culture.
By putting in place focus areas for ideas, companies reduce the burden of too many choices. They make it easy for individuals to sift through the thousands of potential ideas in their heads. Reducing the burden of too many choices makes it easier for someone to contribute something that will be groundbreaking in a specific area.
Sense of Engagement
When management calls for ideas in a specific realm, it signals an increased level of attention. General suggestive venues for ideas are critical, and part of an ongoing innovation culture. But specific calls for ideas on a given topic communicate that management is listening right now. Or at least quite frequently.
The effect of this is powerful. A challenge for workers is to have their voices heard on issues, and to know that their contributions have an audience. The importance of attention to contributions in employee social networks is one that has been researched and documented by HP Labs. Attention from fellow participants is required for healthy communities and innovation processes. And attention from executives in a position to act on ideas is also critical.
The term “constraint” is definitionally correct in this sense. The constraint being the category of ideas called for. But another way to put it is that employees are being “encouraged” to share their ideas. There are only so many hours in a day, and workers know that their extra focus on ideas will be rewarded with higher attention, both from peers and executives.
Urgency through Scarcity
In his seminal book Influence, Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D., analyzed the different ways in which people are persuaded to do things. One significant device is termed “scarcity”. Here’s how Dr. Cialdini describes it:
The scarcity principle: that opportunities seem more valuable to us when their availability is limited. The idea of potential loss plays a large role in human decision making. In fact, people seem to e more motivated by the thought of losing something than by the thought of gaining something of equal value.
A key tactic in putting constraints on innovation is to time box the call for ideas on a given topic. For example, stating that “Executives are seeking ideas on Topic X during the next three weeks.” The scarcities in this case are time, and the attention of executives to ideas that are submitted.
With limited time, the pressure increases to finally contribute that idea that’s been in your head. If it’s a good idea, it will find its way to the top whenever submitted. But who knows when someone will feel the urgency to submit such an idea? The constraint of time creates this sense of urgency through the scarcity principle.
The other scarce resource affected in the time box approach includes management attention. As mentioned, good ideas find their way to the top, regardless whether they are part of a constraint or open suggestive process. But knowing that management is paying higher attention now to a given topic operates very well on the scarcity principle. In the previous section, management attention was important to engagement. In this case, the perception that the heightened attention is limited creates a sense of urgency. This is helpful in driving higher levels of participation.
Constraints Are for Fostering Innovation, Not Limiting It
The risk of using the “constraints” language for innovation is that it is commingled with cases where companies were too constrained in their thinking. When Clayton Christensen talks about the integrated steel mills being driven out of business by the mini mills, it smacks of “constrained thinking” by the big mill operators. They were too limited in understanding their customers and advances in technology.
But as the Scott Anthony quote at the top of this post shows, constraints are useful. Applied well, they serve a smart tactical purpose in improving innovation. They focus the creative and problem-solving talents of employees on areas most important to organizations.
(Cross-posted @ the Spigit Blog)