Mar 19, 2021



Thought Leadership

Product Management

Why Constraints Are Powerful Drivers of Innovation
Cover for Why Constraints Are Powerful Drivers of Innovation

In Cuba, locals have a common saying: resolver. It roughly translates to: solve, get by, or make do. Resolver is how Cubans describe solving problems ranging from the everyday to the complex on an island with few resources. It's how they've managed to cars built in the 1940s running for nearly eight decades without ever having access to spare parts from the manufacturers. Or how they've learned to make electric bikes using motors from water pumps and military tanks. Being physically, politically, and economically isolated from much of the world has given birth to a nation of DIY engineers, designers, and inventors. 

Examples like this one challenge our assumptions on how innovation and creativity occur. We associate creativity with unrestricted environments and an abundance of resources and opportunities. Silicon Valley's never-ending flow of venture capital, Ivy League universities with large budgets, and Tony Stark types with millions to burn on passion projects are some examples that come to mind. 

Constraints have long been seen as barriers to creativity. But look closer, and you'll see that some of the most incredible feats of creativity and innovation have come to life under very restricted conditions. 

Michelangelo worked within stylistic conventions that most artists today would balk at. Stravinsky waxed poetic about how self-imposed constraints set his creativity free. More recently, Covid-19 has gotten the entire planet into the spirit of resolver. Teachers have figured out how to continue classes using Zoom, entire companies have gone remote, and the threat of a rapidly worsening pandemic pushed scientists to develop highly effective vaccines using novel technology in record time.  

Creativity thrives when it's challenged. You can't learn to think outside of the box if you don't have one in the first place. 

Why you need to get inside the box

The human brain is an optimizer. It likes to follow the path of least resistance and find the easiest way to complete tasks. When confronted with a problem, it searches for similar experiences in the past and applies whatever worked then to what it's facing now. Once it learns to solve a problem without too much effort, it gets complacent and fixed on those limited solutions. This is an excellent tool for survival but not so for creative thinking. 

Challenges force us to get creative, iterate multiple solutions, and learn to be variable—or find different and novel ways to do things. Time, scope, and resource constraints promote high variability by making tasks more difficult and forcing us to narrow our focus. They compel us to make do with what we have and see possibilities that we would've overlooked in more abundant circumstances. 

Cubans have learned to be highly variable. They see possibilities in objects that most people in the developed world could never envision. "People think beyond the normal capacities of an object and try to surpass the limitations that it imposes on itself," explains Ernesto Oraza. This mindset marks the difference between seeing a broken washing machine or an old rotary phone as treasure troves of raw materials instead of useless trash.

How constraints pushed innovation at Zipline

Zipline, a startup that transports medical equipment via drone, is a great example of innovation under severe constraints. The company made leaps in aircraft technology, AI, and navigation systems while trying to figure out how to deliver blood and medicines to rural villages in Rwanda.

Finding a solution to a life-or-death situation in a resource-strained environment using novel technology posed some serious challenges. Zipline's drones would have to perform safe and speedy deliveries of fragile cargo over long distances in unpredictable weather. They would also have to fly close to the ground in rain and wind to airdrop packages without landing to keep the aircraft light and reduce risks for humans and equipment.

The engineering team sought out NASA's input for their drones' design. They tried to use their weather models to program the automated navigation systems—but neither the designs nor the weather models worked out for them. Flying close to the ground is considered too dangerous for aircraft, so there were no precedents for what Zipline was trying to do. 

This long list of challenges became the source of some of the most innovative features of the company’s drones. The critical and time-sensitive mission—coupled with the resource-strained setting, and extreme conditions—pushed Zipline’s engineering team to develop a fleet of aircraft unlike any other. 

Zips, as the company calls them, can fly faster and farther than any other commercially available drone. An automated navigation system combining NASA's weather models with Zipline's data guides the aircraft through nearly every terrain and weather condition. They're also cheap and easy to operate in places where fuel and electricity are scarce. Long-lasting rechargeable batteries power each drone for up to 1,500 flights. And launch sites need only an electrical generator to operate and recharge the battery packs.

Zips feature a unique design that allows them to fly in multiple weather conditions and airdrop packages containing fragile cargo. Image source: Zipline
Zips feature a unique design that allows them to fly in multiple weather conditions and airdrop packages containing fragile cargo. Image source: Zipline

Prior to Zipline, there had never been a compelling enough reason to optimize drone technology for sensitive deliveries in first-world nations. Reliable roads, state-of-the-art hospitals, and regular mail service made technology like this redundant. There were no constraints, so there was no need to think outside the box.

The sweet spot

Some constraints can be highly beneficial to the creative process. But add too many and they'll stifle it. This relationship can be illustrated with an inverted U-curve. An absence of limitations is associated with low creativity levels. As obstacles start to appear, individuals get more ingenious at working out how to solve them. However, once the box gets too tight and people don't have enough resources to break out of it, they give up, and creativity levels dip. 

There is a sweet spot where constraints feed our creativity. Source: Open Learn
There is a sweet spot where constraints feed our creativity. Source: Open Learn

Cubans have many limitations. But they also have resources that similar nations don’t have. The revolution left them uniquely blessed with a large number of unemployed engineers and other science professionals. These individuals were able to kickstart Cuba’s DIY culture and pass on their technical know-how to others. For all their ingenuity, however, Cubans are severely restricted in the types of devices that they can fashion from the few materials available to them. Building motorized bikes with water pump motors requires fewer resources and technical skills than building an operational aircraft, for example.

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