Why you need extreme constraints to fuel innovation

Have you heard of the “Prakash Lab”? The team calls itself a curiosity driven research group at Stanford, trying to invent novel technologies with clinical applications with a current focus on resource-poor settings.

In this video, watch Bhamla and Prakash build a hand-powered centrifuge for 20 cents! You’ll see that with curiosity you can change the world no matter what daunting constraints try to rein you in. In 2014, the Stanford bioengineer, Manu Prakash built a 50-cent paper microscope, the origami Foldscope, with all the functionalities and efficacy of a standard microscope. Amazing, cost-effective and extremely useful innovations come out from this frugal science advocate’s lab.

How can boundaries lead to illimitable thinking? It sounds like a paradox. It seems counterintuitive. But apparently, this is true.

Constraints can be beautiful

In their book A Beautiful Constraint: How To Transform Your Limitations Into Advantages, and Why It's Everyone's Business, Morgan and Barden, say

“By making a constraint beautiful, we mean seeing it as an opportunity, not a punitive restriction, and using it as a stimulus to see a new or better way of achieving our ambition.”

They talk about Zappos, Southwest Airlines, and Aravind Eye Hospitals to drive home the point about turning a constraint, such as resource, time, and method, into a winning opportunity.

Online shoe store Zappo has a 365-day returns policy and free two-way shipping; this was introduced in the last decade when the company realized that customers were hesitant to purchase because they couldn’t try the shoes out before buying. Their most profitable customers have the highest return rates!

Never having gotten near bankruptcy like other airline majors, Southwest Airlines with its nonconformist culture has remained profitable for close to 50 years using focused innovations. In the 1970s, when it had three planes and four routes, they got innovative by turning around the planes from landing to takeoff as fast as possible, from an hour down to 10 minutes, in different ways such as introducing unassigned seating.

Indian ophthalmologist, Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy worked tirelessly to set up the Aravind Eye Care System that offers affordable eye care treatment to Indians through technological, organizational, and financial innovations.

With the right mindset, nothing is impossible. Innovation is more about thinking than about product or process innovation.

Constraints can be inspiring

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer offered the same opinion writing for Businessweek in 2006:

Constraints can fuel innovation

Some of the most innovative ideas have come from marketing and advertising. Curtailed by constraints (money, time, attention, options, and know-how) galore, they are brimming with amazing ideas. Think of all those wonderful attention-grabbing ads that make you cry, laugh, or annoyed..the ads you actually don’t skip when watching YouTube.

Whoever thought you could sit in your living room and test drive a Mitsubishi 2011 Outlander Sport?

When Virgin America had limited marketing budgets, it got creative and partnered with Victoria's Secret and HBO (2007-2008) to redefine customer experience for their flyers. Haven’t you come across amazing Tweets in spite of the character limit? Think of beautiful Haiku. Even better: Not Quite What I Was Planning — six-word memoirs from writers famous and obscure. Brevity was the constraint and the output is simply brilliant.

Having a choice is not always a good thing. (Didn’t think you’d ever read this, right?) Read up on decision fatigue. And you might agree. Not everyone is happy with a blank page. Sometimes, people find solace in boundaries to focus and find inspiration for creative ideas. “I think if you’re given a clean, fresh palette, and you do whatever you want, it’s almost too much freedom, at least for me.I find [constraints] make the process a little more enjoyable and the final output is usually something I’m more proud of,” says designer Damien Correll, a much-in-demand NYC-based graphic designer.

Constraints are fundamental to problem-solving

People like challenges; they like problems; they like constraints. Well, some do.

Some thrive on the challenge of battling tight deadlines, limited resources, narrow scope, and high expectations.

Surely, you can recognize this. When you play Sudoku or work on the NYT crossword? Stimulating several cognitive aspects of our minds, puzzles (which are constraint satisfaction problems) impact the novelty and quality aspects of creative problem-solving.

In another example, actual constraints force startups to be creative and struggle to survive. Out-of-the-box thinking is the only way for their value proposition to succeed. A constrained environment doesn’t allow them to experiment or second guess or shrug off failure. Whereas, big companies can afford to lose a few dollars. Perhaps, this is why startups are often synonymous with successful innovation.


  • For productive innovation, you need to construct your constraints very carefully

Constraints can fuel innovation


In an Agile system, you could adjust cost, scope, and schedule to impact development positively. Which of the three would you deem flexible or fixed?

Sina Mossayeb, IDEO Senior Design Lead, says, “Clarity of purpose enables people, teams, and organizations to design the right constraints that create conditions for innovation to emerge and be applied. Like the NASA Mars Rover team: they had a limited budget, limited weight, and limited time. However, their sole goal was to send 6 wheels onto Mars.”

  • When you have constraints, you focus on what’s imperative to success

For instance, in today’s “mobile first” mantra, tech companies are forced to identify what functionality is critical and what the message to the customer really is. This helps streamline your strategy.

  • Often, when constraints are imposed on you, you find that changing your initial position on something has helped throw open a whole world of possibilities.

Marquis Jet founder, Jesse Itzler, talks about David Goggins, a Navy SEAL, who taught him about mental toughness. (Watch this video.) Itzler swears by Goggins’s 40% rule: “He would say that when your mind is telling you you’re done, you’re really only 40 percent done. And he had a motto: If it doesn’t suck we don’t do it. And that was his way of forcing us to get uncomfortable to figure out what our baseline was and what our comfort level was and just turning it upside-down.”

  • A constraint is a double-edged sword

For innovation to be successful, the execution has to be just right. Different technological, business and cultural constraints need to be factored into your idea to prototype strategy. Good judgment and experience will come into play when you have conflicting constraints threatening to derail a project. You need leaders who understand the limitations thoroughly and decide on the right trade-offs. This approach inspires innovative ideas and the confidence to implement them.

About the Author

Dhanya Menon
Dhanya Menon is an editor and academic writer. This is her first stint in content marketing, having spent over 5 years in e-learning. Her interests are varied. She likes to lose track of time reading anything from chemistry to Allende, from statistics to Thurber cartoons, from Ruth Rendell to listening to her son's unique take on life.