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Limitation Stimulates Creativity

| On 22, Oct 2007

Ellen Domb

My colleague Akhilesh Gulati recently ran this essay on the use of limitations to stimulate innovation in the Radical Thinking column of his newsletter www.pivotmc.com which I recommend to our readers.   I have seen this limitation effect many times, so I wanted to share Akhilesh’s paper with our TRIZ Journal and Real Innovation Commentary readers:


  


In today’s world, it’s almost expected to have product/service innovation to gain competitive advantage.  So how does one innovate?  One approach is to hire genius employees and to combine the attributes of a number of tools (e.g. Theory of Constraints, Experimentation) or use specific methodologies such as TRIZ (Innovative Problem Solving).

However, if the intent is to gain competitive advantage, your weakness itself may be a source of competitive advantage.  To cite an example from many years ago, Thomas Edison was known to be deaf and he used his limitation to help him solve problems as well as develop new inventions.  On one occasion, he was called to New York to help solve noise problems associated with the newly elevated trains in the city.  Many had tried to reduce noise levels but could never identify the exact location of its source.  Due to his deafness, Edison could hear only the worst of the noise.  This allowed him to more quickly pinpoint the problem area, rather than be distracted and sidetracked by other noises made by the elevated trains.  Ultimately, the noise was due to structural problems with the elevated tracks and not the steam engines that ran the train.  While most observers couldn’t hear past the engine, Edison could hear the heart of the problem due to his ‘disadvantage.’

Such is the issue when we place limitations on ourselves as we seek new innovative solutions.  Imposing constraints, yes, that’s right, putting ON constraints rather than REMOVING them, allows us to stretch our thinking and become creative. It allows us to break our bounds, get outside the comfort level and seek solutions we might have otherwise avoided.  Success of many kaizen events can also be attributed to imposing constraints or limitations: limited time (typically 5-10 days) within which to accomplish the task, having a very limited budget to achieve results, seeking unimaginable results, dedicating ‘operational experts’ full time to the task at hand for an interim period of time, etc..  Kaizen events often allow us to accomplish tasks that we may have been struggling with for months, in a matter of days, with generally unbelievable results.

Some examples of how these constraints have led to creative / innovative results follow:


• Personalized or vanity license plates on cars can allow for only seven characters.  Check out the creative messages with a mix of letters, numbers and spaces: 2L82W8, MTBRAIN, GU10TAG.

• TV commercials and print ads have limited time/space in which to get their message across; therefore verbosity is not allowed.  A mix of images, words, sounds etc. must be formulated to advertise in different media so as to grab the viewers’ attention and deliver the message – all, without being much of a distraction.

Limiting our way to innovation does not necessarily mean creating self-imposed constraints to motivate greater creativity. We should examine our organizational weaknesses (this can be identified via a SWOT analysis) and determine if we can use them to our advantage; after all no competitor would want to emulate our weaknesses!  Southwest Airlines was forced to offer short-run flights in the regulated industry; however, as deregulation set in, they chose to continue to offer short-run flight (something no competitor wanted to do) and has posted a profit every year!

Determining our greatest weakness or constraint might just point the direction towards our competitive advantage.  It is said that necessity is the mother of all invention.  Might it be that limitation is the mother of innovation?

As Blaine McCormick writes in his book ‘At Work With Thomas Edison’, “Like Thomas Edison you may find that putting limitations on yourself will spur you to even greater creativity,” and innovation.