How do you come up with ideas? Are you a data-processor...researching what's been done before? Are you a social innovator who creates better ideas by bouncing the first nuggets of an idea off your peers and colleagues? Maybe you're more prone to brainstorming or perhaps you follow a very distinct process. Most likely you do some combination of the above. And even more likely, you develop ideas differently than those around you.

The fact is that everyone comes up with ideas differently. In our research, while we know that there are proven ways that people think and behave, we also know that within those general factors, the combinations and permutations are endless. This is what makes us each unique.

That also means that it's very difficult to have one clear methodology for innovation that works for everyone. It is always a challenge for companies to roll out enterprise training, especially for things that challenge how people actually think and do work.

But, if we could simplify a complex process like innovation, it could open up new ways of doing business. The answer might be making innovation more conventional. Instead of thinking outside-the-box, it can actually be beneficial to think inside the box.

According to USC Professor John Seely Brown, "Contrary to popular myth, imagination and innovation are actually spurred by constraints. Too much freedom can be paralyzing." Does this seem counter-intuitive? Not to me and I'll tell you why.

Innovation is not simply coming up with ideas. Innovation is about actualizing ideas and re-imagining how things work. For something to be innovative, it must also actually effect a change. It must take action and create an impact. Therefore, just creating an idea isn't really innovative since the process should also develop results. That is why putting constraints into the innovation process is actually helpful.

Constraints could mean a number of different things. A client of ours recently underwent a significant merger and they needed an innovative plan to roll out employee training systems to their employee base. The problem was that the number of people who needed training was now much larger and the technology system to track the training was no longer just on one platform. It was a huge challenge, as thousands of employees needed this training. But instead of focusing on all the ways that they could roll it out and all the different kinds of programs now available to them, they actually reframed the issue and started with a key constraint.

Any system that would be rolled out would have to work on their current learning management software system. So this very quickly focused their efforts. Either they'd need to innovate about how to scale the current offerings that worked on this system or they'd need to find new solutions that would accomplish their training goals and fit onto the software.

This isn't a new phenomenon of course, as constraints exist in nearly everything we do. As a leader, you likely never say "Just go come up with a new product," because this kind of directive is hard to act upon. Your direct reports and team members would come back with a million questions. "Who is our audience?" "What are we trying to accomplish" "What else is out there in the marketplace that we're competing against." The list could go on and on.

So we all have constraints in our work, but we don't often think about framing innovation this way. Here's my approach to innovation by using constraints and thinking inside the box.

  • Constrain the problem but not the potential ways of solving it: Innovation isn't only the provenance of highly conceptual thinkers. People who are very process-driven can be innovative as well. Recognize that we all innovate differently.
  • Constrain the atmosphere but not the team: It's been proven that innovation is more effective as a collaborative process. Create a constrained atmosphere where people can present ideas safely and without judgment but know that you need different kinds of brains in the room.
  • Constrain the resources but not the ways to utilize them: If you had a huge budget, it probably wouldn't be difficult to develop great ideas. Innovation happens when you develop things with a limited resource set. Be clear about what your resource limitations are, because that will actually help your people innovate more effectively.

John Seely Brown said it and I agree--innovation truly happens when we change our mindset and our dispositions. Adding constraints is a new mindset but one that surprisingly opens the door to innovation.

Published on: Nov 11, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.