Why the Desire to Simplify Can Inhibit Innovation

A friend recently postulated that having budget constraints can encourage better innovation than those with lots of money to burn as this provides a framework where automatically many things are out of bounds, because you can’t afford them. He proceeded to point to many start-ups often don’t have a lot of money, but make up for it in energy and determination and thus often end up coming up with solutions better, smarter and more relevant than their heavy-weight rivals. 

Coming from a product design background I must agree that an essential component to innovation is first figuring out your constraints, the framework within which you intend to innovate. Before you know that, it is virtually impossible to determine, which of your million ideas is the best solution to a given problem.

Having smaller budgets certainly creates some immediate restraints on what the solution should be – i.e it can’t cost more than X. That has a remarkable ability to focus a team. The trouble with this approach is often the desire to simplify too soon, which means that many important factors, which will in the end determine the success of the solution, are discarded too early from the process, and thus the solution ends up being more of the same, rather than truly groundbreaking.

One of my favourite quotes ever is that of F. Scott Fitzgerald, that for him ‘the sign of a truly intelligent individual is one who has the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function’. Innovation is often just that, how to balance the constraints one has from an organisational, technical and financial point of view against the desires and demands of one’s consumers. Often it is not a matter of either-or, but both, and the innovation is the process of coming up with just how that will be done.

Here the key is to be able to seek less obvious, but potentially relevant factors (that will give differentiation in the long run, although to start with will seem like they are adding more complexity to the topic), secondly it is the ability to consider multi-directional, non-linear relationships between these variables and seeing problems as a whole, examining how the parts fit together and how decisions affect one another, and then lastly: creatively resolve those conflicts between seemingly opposing ideas to generate innovative outcomes.

That sounds very complicated and at times, it is – and it is pivotal not to fear the complexity to start with and simplify too soon, thus ending up creating a solution which will only partially address the problem (and potentially give birth to an entirely new problem!), but to persist and strive to integrate, not divide. So constraints are good – but do you know all your constraints or have you simply settled for the most obvious ones?