Innovation. It’s easy to talk about it — it’s probably one of your department’s key goals or built into your company’s mission statement — but it’s not so easy to do. It’s even harder to make it a habit in your day-to-day workflow. As an innovation consultant and entrepreneur, I was recently given a sneak peek at a new book on innovation called A Beautiful Constraint. In short, it teaches you to take your constraints — budget, time, resources, whatever — and make them work for you in your quest for innovation. It sounds simple, and in many ways it is. Electrified by the read and brimming with inspiration for the new year ahead, I’m suggesting four easy ways to up your innovation game.
1. Turn “can’t” into “can if”
Problems make us feel paralyzed. When you meet a roadblock, it’s natural to throw your hands up and want to walk away. But next time you find yourself brainstorming on something and saying “We can’t because…” try starting the sentence “We can if…” instead.
Here’s an example: Recently, my business Never Liked It Anyway made a venture into creating its own content. We needed an army of talented writers. Immediately, we waved the “We can’t because we don’t have money” flag. It didn’t serve us very well. Then, we shifted to thinking about options: “We can if… we identify talented, aspiring writers and offer them mentorship instead,” and “We can if… we align them to our vision of ousting Cosmopolitan magazine and invite them to be part of that journey!”
Simple, right? We now have five talented writers on our team, and we’re growing fast. For another case, in the early days, Leura Spielman had no money to build an app prototype for her design marketplace Laurel & Wolf. After some “can if” thinking, she realized she didn’t need to build an app right away; she could get the results, feedback, and information she needed by using a simple survey template. From this, she gained solid proof of concept and was able to raise capital.
2. Access your assets
Ownership is becoming an antiquated concept, replaced by the shared economy. Companies like Zipcar, Netflix, Songza, Rent the Runway, and Dropbox have smashed ownership into oblivion. This “access” mode of thinking should apply to your business assets and resources, too. Rather than thinking about what assets you own, consider what assets you can access.
Suddenly, your world just explodes! Is there someone out there with distribution, audience, or resources you could utilize? In 2008, for example, ColaLife had the idea to bring life-saving medicines to parts of Africa. It just lacked the distribution. So, the company identified Coca-Cola as a partner with all the distribution it could ever hope for; and went after them. Armed with a 10,000 follower-strong social media campaign, ColaLife convinced Coca-Cola to let it hijack its distribution chain.
3. Ask impossible questions
Weirdly, in the context of innovation, impossible questions are more useful than hard questions.
Impossible questions collide the scale of your ambition with the problem itself.
Impossible questions collide the scale of your ambition with the problem itself. This turbocharges creativity and catapults us into problem solving mode instantly.
Dee Daa, a quick-serve Thai restaurant chain based in NYC, needed to tell the world about its authentic dishes, yet couldn’t afford traditional media. The company shunned a defeatist attitude and instead asked, “How can we make something we’re already doing spark more conversations than an advertisement could?” The team focused on its packaging: They drew inspiration from the Thai Pinto “lunchbox” to create iconic, authentic, and remarkable packaging (especially amid the sea of generic take away containers). The Pinto is now one of Dee Daa’s most recognizable brand assets, and the company has positioned itself as a category thought leader.
4. Put constraints on yourself
We’re not always up against constraints. In some parts of our working lives, we actually have it pretty good. Ironically, this can be a challenge in itself and often results in us moving slowly and less creatively against our problem.
The solution? Put constraints on yourself. That’s right: Deliberately limit your time, budget, or resources. I’m in the process of launching a podcast series. Each week, I watched it slide off my task list and land on next week’s to-dos. Then, I decided to put a constraint on myself: Just spend 15 minutes each day working toward this goal. Of course I have 15 minutes to invest in this project every day! In five days, I made more progress than I had in the previous five weeks. Progress begets progress, and now the project has momentum of its own.
So there you have it: four easy ways to up your innovation game. Most importantly, remember that innovation is a habit. The more you practice it, the easier this way of thinking, and being, becomes. Next time you encounter an innovation-crushing roadblock, allow yourself to feel the frustration — and even a sense of resignation. But then challenge yourself to overcome it and to actually embrace its limitation. A Beautiful Constraint may sound like an oxymoron, but therein lies its challenge and effectiveness.