Constraints Spur Innovation Breakthroughs

Constraints Spur Innovation BreakthroughsUse Constraints of Budget and Time to Spur Innovation

For nonprofits and businesses focused on improving the world, time and budget constraints all too often block the road to innovation for “good.”

Fortunately, constraints are a two-sided: with the right structure and planning, less time and resources also are the perfect conditions for innovation breakthroughs.

The largest tech companies have figured this out, as have successful startup incubators, and the proof is in the increasingly shorter innovation and product development cycles.

Time-To-Innovate Growing Shorter

Consider that the Microsoft release cycle for Windows has moved from every 3 years to every year. Apple’s release cycle for its OS X operating system is now yearly. Startup accelerators such as Y Combinator and Tech Stars have three-month programs that achieve what used to be done over a year. Finally, of course, there is the one-day hackathon, a powerful way for communities to generate interest and traction for digital solutions on particular issues.

It’s easy to find rapid-innovation examples at technology companies or startup accelerators accustomed to operating in the fast-paced development world. But how can a nonprofit organization or for-profit business focused on improving the world take advantage of expedited approaches driven by creative constraints? The answer is what I call the rapid solutions process. Such a process takes what can be seen as negatives – lack of funding, time and resources – and combines those constraints into a catalyst for solutions.

Rapid solutions process forces discipline, cost cutting, expedited innovation, new product development and faster release of new products.

Rapid Solutions Process Requires Smart Structure

In the rapid solutions process, constraints are an advantage. Taken in combination with a well-designed and managed process, businesses and nonprofits can put themselves on a creative “hook” that means they can’t help but innovate.

The key ingredients to leveraging a rapid solutions process include:

  • Getting the right type and right number of participants
  • Prototyping and testing more than talking and wondering
  • Setting budget, time, and scope constraints

Constraints, however, must be carefully constructed to be effective. At CauseLabs, we focus on rapid prototyping solutions in the form of workshops lasting anywhere from 1-5 days. These workshops include drawing-board sessions to define goals and hone the best ideas before going on-site; lab days to conduct field observations and interviews; rapid prototyping with designer and engineer on hand; and demos to finalize the next steps needed to act on proofs of concept.

The end result should be a prototype solution in the market or field to achieve measurable results.

Constraints lead to innovation more often when they force us to find new ways of solving old problems. This is why we value having a diverse group of workshop participants with different backgrounds, expertise and experiences. These different points of view are the new avenues of thought we need to explore to come together to create something new.

Here are two examples of a rapid solutions process resulting in innovation breakthroughs:

Playing for Change Foundation

The Playing for Change Foundation, a leading charity using music to transform children’s lives, used a rapid solutions workshop to develop a one-day music celebration powered by the cloud. The resulting web application has empowered music lovers to become fundraisers and produced a 3:1 return on investment.

East Meets West

East Meets West, an international development organization transforming the health, education and communities of disadvantaged people in Asia, conducted an on-site intensive to pinpoint problems in field-level verification and create a prototype solution in just one week. The resulting breakthrough plan discovered in just three months saved will save at least one year’s worth of fieldwork.

Bottom Line: Constraints Spur Breakthroughs

Great causes such as these want to solve problems and embrace opportunities but often need help re-imagining what is possible. Viewing long-standing problems and new opportunities through the lens of emerging technologies via a rapid solutions process can be a liberating exercise.

Just as necessity is the mother of invention, constraints of time and budget — when used to advantage through a well-planned and designed rapid solutions process — can actually result in innovation breakthroughs. Not to mention that by getting a concept right before spending on it, organizations and businesses gain more power to innovate for a better world.

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T.J. Cook is CEO of CauseLabs, a Denver-based company founded in 2003 that solves problems for great causes by using emerging technologies. He can be reached at or 720-443-3348.

TJ Cook




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