Ability to innovate is directly proportional to constraints in the system

We human beings love to innovate, create better ideas and solutions, achieve efficiency in operations and so on. To do so, most people ask for the latest and greatest tools, the newest of the management fads, the really costly consultants so that they could ‘innovate’. The solitary aim and hope being those ‘new silver bullets’ have the right power to fix your problems.

However, they could not be any further from truth – real innovation happens when there are real constraints on the system and not when you have infinte amount of resources and problem-solving tools. When you try to remove or reduce the constraints just by adding resources alone (which could be time, money, people, tools, methodology, ..whatever), you are actually making the problem worse. Without challenging the people to come up with smart solutions, you are asking them to move away from that ‘source of innovation’ and do something else. This might be ok in some cases, but invariably, it deprives the golden opportunity to find some real cool way to solve complex problems. A far more effective way would be to respect that constraint without trying to satiate the bottleneck by throwing money (or whatever you can afford to throw) at the problem.

The great Indian epic, Mahabharata, has the story of lower-caste prince Eklavya who is an expert archer and wants to become the world’s best archer ever. He goes to the guru of noble princes, Dronacharya, who refuses to teach him as he comes from lower caste, so what if he is a prince. Not to give up so easily, Eklavya makes a statue of his ‘guru’ and ‘learns’ from him and become the ace archer ! Who says you need a guru to learn something – you can even learn something without having the right tools in hands. When I was growing up, my father told me the story of a poor boy who is determined to learn typing and win the typing contest. The only problem is that he doesn’t know typewriting and has no means to attend typing classes. He comes up with a novel idea: he copies the QWERTY layout of the typewriter on a piece of paper and practices ‘hitting’ the key on that piece of paper ! After a month of practicing ‘typing’, he finally makes it !

Innovation, or atleast the innovating thinking flourishes at its best in places that have traditionally been deprived of capital to buy more fancier solutions and there was a dire need to change the current status. In the annals of history, names of people like Edison, Strowger (an undertaker who made the first automatic telephone exchange so that a telephone operator  favorable to his competitor could not favor him anymore) have a special place . They all challenged the status quo and neither dearth of capital not serial failures could dent their enthusiasm or efforts to find a more innovative way to solve a real-world problem. Go visit the countryside of India, or any country. From the ‘lassi’ shop guy who so smartly uses a washing machine to make ‘lassi’ to the innovations that help peel a coconut faster, we have it all. A couple of years ago, I went to this fabulous place known as Bhimbetka near Bhopal, India. Apart from the magnificant pre-historic cave paintings that this place is world-famous for, I also saw very strange and interesting things. All the dogs there had a spiky collar – it had like millions of nails jutting out of it. When I asked the reason, the locals told the most obvious reason: that area has many wild animals, including leopards and tigers. They attack the dogs in the night. Having such collar saves the dogs because when they attack the dogs, they first go for their necks, which doesn’t provi to be such a smart move after all. So, having such dog collars actually saves the dogs. Similarly, I read somewhere that the single biggest innovation that has saved human lives in similar rough terrains is usage of a human mask worn on the backside of the head. The tiger thinks the human is watching it and stays away. Innovation to survive doesn’t seem to be the elite preserve of people being chased by tigers and leopards. The desire (or rather the desparation) to survive is equally strong in urban jungles…the types that exist in corporate world 🙂

On the other hand, sometimes the brightest minds do seem to bungle up. You might have heard of the suppossedly true (?) tale of how NASA spent millions trying to develop an anti-gravity ballpen for its astronauts…and failed. The Soviets just used the pencils.

In software development, we have seen it all. From the CEOs who read the latest management fad in the airline magazine and wants to start ‘doing it’ rightaway to the architects who want to bet on the latest (and often, unproven) technology to the project manager who thinks having a couple of more engineers will help him complete on time….these are all classic examples of how we human beings are throwing more fuel on the buring house. Instead of hiring more people, he probably might be well-advised to look inwards as to why there is a delay after all, and how can he avoid any further delays. The architect who wants to solve the problem using the latest tools might be risking far too much in the bargain – including his own career. Where is he going to find people who also understand the new toolset, the proven ways to architecture the system for achieving best performance, and so on. The CEO who wants to implement the latest management mantra might be jumping too soon to the conclusions without having the right assessment of problem or having the buy-in of his team. Do you think any of these are really innovating ? In my view, they are simply avoiding the tough discussions by trying to take shortcuts.

So, instead of trying to create a picture-postcard version of the problem, try to understand the systemic constraints. They are the sources of what will ultimately make your solution stand apart in the crowd. Because in real-life, you don’t have a photo-editing software like Picassa to obliterate the blemishes to make your picture a picture-postcard quality.

[6-Aug-09] I am thankful to a reader, Prateek Narang, for pointing out a mistake in the blog title. It has now been corrected 🙂

11 thoughts on “Ability to innovate is directly proportional to constraints in the system

  1. Weezeroz

    Познавательный и интересный материал, думаю стоит обсудить это всем вместе. Кто хочет присоединиться?

  2. SeregaDertin

    Полностью все усироило меня в этом блоге, нашел все что хотел. Везде бы так делали.

  3. Nicetravel

    Для более подробного и внимательного изучения добавил в избранное. Буду изучать

  4. TV Post author

    Thanks for your sharing your views. While I don’t really support *creating* artificial constraints just to spur innovation (to be honest, there are enough constraints as it is!), my perspective is on how do you go about addressing them once you find them in the system. That said, I also realize there are companies that believe in constraining resources to make people think creatively. A famous software company (that shall remain unnamed) presumably does staffing only at 90% levels – always. The logic being you will be ‘forced’ to come up with really smart ways of working only when you are seriously challenged in your resource supply assumptions. Similarly, I understand when E. Sreedharan was handed over Delhi Metro project initially, it was running late. The first thing he did was to actually pull back project dates by a month, and the results are there for everyone to see. Closer home, when US denied Cray Superomputers to India in 80s, India responded by setting up C-DAC (Centre for Development of Advanced Computing) and created its own PARAM range of supercomputers (and now India ranks #4 globally in Supercomputers usage, and I guess most of them must be home-grown).

    I guess it has some semblence with the so-called ‘Student Syndrome’. This happens in every college but studied probably for the first time in Harvard. The faculty used to give assignments to students with a one-week deadline and all students used to stay awake several nights and somehow complete the assignment. The faculty took pity at the plight of students and once gave them two weeks to complete the assignment. The students were extremely happy. Then went back and partied real hard for the first week and were back to working late nights the second week ! Student syndrome is not just limited to students. I think this is how the human psychology works. We always have ‘safety nets’ in in our mind for every task we do. In normal circumstances, we try not to exhaust those safety buffers and rely on an increased supply of resources to fix the problem. Only when we are challenged to work within a fixed and reduced amount of problem, do we think of finding alternative and more effecient ways to fix the problem.

    What say ?

  5. Prateek Dayal

    Hi Amisax

    I think its not so much about creating constraints as much as its about embracing constraints and still innovating. Fortunately or unfortunately, we live in a world which is constrained enough without asking for it 🙂

    This is esp. true in case of startups. Getting Real is also a good book to read about all this stuff

    Nice post Tathagat

  6. Adjuvant Chemotherapy

    I think the author understands well causality vs. correlation (e.g. p->q does not imply q->p), and this article is actually a deeper analysis of the situation. There does seem to be a mode of thought in much of business, government, and science (I bring up science because that’s my main field) that by throwing money at the problem, one can solve all the problems. But the truth is more complex – for example, the U.S. threw money at biomedical research from ’98 to 2003, doubling the amount of funds spent on biomedicine. But measures of productivity, such as publication of highly cited papers, remained flat. So in some cases at least, it’s compelling to think that addition of resources is no longer helpful. Whereas on the other hand, harsh environments has led to innovation like the examples shown above. Although it’s also true that harsh environments occasionally produce absolutely nothing without minimal resources supporting it. Probably the answer lies then in the balance of resources vs. constraint.

  7. Amisax

    This is a typical p implies q, but q does not imply p problem. Innovation might be the best way to conquer constraints, but the other way round is not true – creating constraints to foster innovation, is just not the right thing.

    The decision makers too, need to realize this, especially in today’s scenario. They should ensure they are not creating constraints and expecting someone to innovate to come over them

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