We need constraints for innovation.
It’s counterintuitive at first—why would being more constrained or having fewer resources lead to great outcomes? But it can happen. Constraints force us to rethink our priorities and how we use our time, and take stock of the resources we already have (rather than waiting for what we think we need).
Constraints force us to get crystal clear about the problem we’re solving, and they help us get in the mindset to solve it efficiently and effectively.
ADAPTING QUICKLY TO ADVERSITY
After years of research studying how people in severely resource-constrained environments (from grassroots entrepreneurs in emerging markets to boot-strapped entrepreneurs in the U.S.) solve big, pressing problems, I learned that the most impactful and innovative leaders, employees, entrepreneurs, and intrapreneurs use constraints to their advantage.
Instead of belaboring the inconvenience, they take stock—even reframing adversity as opportunity—and get to work. Whether they lack access to affordable capital, consistent electricity or time, they have the ability to leverage their ingenuity, agility, and improvisation amid resource constraints. That’s the secret to progress, and often, their high-impact innovation.
During the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic (and even as we continue to navigate it), many organizations were forced to operate completely differently and under severe constraints. Plenty of organizations floundered. But some adapted quickly. Take sports performance brand Oakley, for example:
When there was an urgent call for PPE, Oakley quickly adapted to make relevant products for frontline medical workers. They realized that in order to make an impact in days rather than months, they couldn’t just expedite an existing process, they had to redesign the process. They force-ranked their top ideas and shifted their approach from a serial one to one that operated in parallel.
It worked. Within just a few weeks, they repurposed production facilities to manufacture PPE, such as face shields for nurses, doctors, and first responders. Not only did they meet urgent needs, but they also emerged with more than just new products. They:
• Empowered employees to think big and become more “permissionless” so decisions were made closest to the problem.
• Harnessed the common purpose shared by everyone as they addressed urgent needs of the pandemic.
• Built a more open and collaborative work environment.
We saw this happen in multiple organizations across sectors over the last 18 months. This extreme focus removed layers and bureaucracy. Employees closest to the problems were asked how to solve them and encouraged to take action. They leveraged a collective passion and purpose, giving everyone involved extra energy to navigate the challenges that invariably occur when charting a new path—especially in large and complex organizations.
TOOLS FOR EVERY INTRAPRENEUR
Of course, it would have been preferable to avoid a global pandemic. But as 2020 and beyond made clear, constraints are unavoidable. That’s why “constraint” is a key tenet of “The Intrapreneur’s Code,” a process used by some of the world’s most innovative intrapreneurs.
Here are three steps from the Intrapreneur’s Code that will help you leverage constraints and reframe them as an opportunity:
1. Prioritize user feedback so you can remove assumptions.
Stay focused on the core needs of your end-users. Use an empathy-based approach and gather early data by talking to or observing those you serve so you’re not operating on assumptions. Don’t add bells and whistles to products or services.
2. Leverage existing resources so you can get started now.
Ask questions like, who can we partner with? What off-the-shelf products can we use? Who are the subject matter experts in-house or who we already know? What can we learn from our customers? What technology can accelerate our path forward?
Try this fun and effective exercise: Consider how you would solve a problem with just 10% or even 1% (yes, just one percent) of your traditional budget. It opens up a world of possibility, helping you go far beyond a cost-out exercise and creating a meaningful mindset shift toward resourceful and innovative thinking.
3. Prioritize your path of highest impact, then eliminate what’s not needed.
When you get clear on the one thing you can do to have the greatest impact for those you serve (and your business), you can eliminate what no longer serves you. Decide whether to drop, delegate, or redesign by sorting the low-value tasks into three categories:
• Quick kills (things you can stop doing now with no negative effects).
• Offload opportunities (tasks that can be delegated with minimal effort).
• Long-term redesign (workflows that need to be restructured or overhauled).
The pandemic forced all of us to learn how to operate well under constraints. This experience will serve us for years to come. Scientists estimate we would need 1.6 Earths to sustain the pace at which we are gobbling up resources (“we” being largely industrialized nations). We need to get savvy at doing more with less.
It’s easy for constraints to feel like a drain or a problem to be endured. But with curiosity, simple tools, and a whole lot of passion, no constraint can hold you back. Like the limited space and structure of a rocket, constraints can be the catalyst that will take you to your greatest destination—just enough restriction to let you soar.
Dr. Ahuja is a keynote speaker, innovation strategist, bestselling author, HBR contributor, parent and practitioner of improvisaional comedy.