Innovating Through Constraint
Innovation is at the intersection of constraint and freedom. In our professional and academic lives, we are told to think openly and let our minds ponder all possibilities. We’ll typically explore our thoughts through brainstorming sessions, hundreds of post-it notes, and sketches upon sketches. We view the blank slate (tabula rosa) as the holy grail of creativity - a blank canvas where we can imagine the unimaginable. However, is this really the most effective way to innovate?
Let’s examine innovation in the context of medicine. To develop a new treatment, research institutions will harness the collective knowledge of experts in biology, chemistry, medicine, sociology, psychology, and so forth. In this scenario, imagine a blank slate approach for innovating a new treatment using two distinct demographics: the aforementioned experts versus a group of non-experts. You could argue that the group of non-experts (students, teachers, plumbers, marketers, businessmen) would be completely free of constraints. They would look upon the whiteboard and have complete freedom to ideate. Now let’s look at the group of experts. They will all bring their domain expertise to the brainstorming session, but they will do so while being grounded in their empirical upbringing and environmental experience.
When you assess the innovation and creativity of these two groups, which group do you feel wins? Is it the experts who have domain-expertise? Or is it the non-experts who have fewer domain-constraints? Broadly speaking, we may initially assume that the experts would have more grounded ideas and the non-experts would come up with wilder, more original ideas without being primed with what already exists. In reality, this is actually the opposite.
Knowledge of what is possible gives us insight into the impossible. Our creativity is, therefore, not constrained by our inability to think freely, it is constrained by our inability to conceive what is possible. Without knowing the complexities of biochemistry, how can someone innovate a new drug? Moveover, without understanding human physiology, how can we propose treatments for internal ailments? This is not to say that non-experts cannot innovate outside their domain, but it does mean that their innovation is severely constrained by their inability to comprehend what is possible - and impossible.
When applied to web design, the best brainstorming sessions are those that draw upon diverse domain expertise. These sessions combine both experts and non-experts, shattering constraint while also providing new perspective. It is a balancing act between the imaginative and the realistic.
We should not think of brainstorming as starting with a blank slate. Rather, we should think of brainstorming as starting a Microsoft Word document or an Adobe Photoshop pallet. You have the blank canvas, now use your tools. But, having the tools is not merely enough, you must know how to harness them, apply them to pragmatic goals, and execute a vision.
Knowing our limits and embracing our prior knowledge can be the keys to innovation. Hence, embracing what we know to be possible helps us solve the impossible.