Thinking INSIDE the Box – How Tough Times Fuel Creativity and Innovation

How to Host a Viking Funeral: Book by Kyle Scheele

By: Kyle Scheele, an author, champion of crazy ideas and recent keynote speaker at the 2023 Supply Summit & Showcase.

We’ve all said it before: “If only I had more (time/money/staff/etc.) I could get this done!”

It’s certainly an enticing excuse – after all, it feels natural to blame a lack of progress on a lack of resources – but is it a valid excuse?

In extreme cases, absolutely. If you are given no time, no money, and no team, it’s hard to get much of anything done. But what about the times when you have a budget, but it’s a little less than you’d hoped? When your deadline is a little sooner than you’d prefer? Your team a little smaller than you’d like?

In those cases, constraints may actually benefit the end product more than you think. Here’s why:

Constraints facilitate focus
Without limitations, it’s tempting to start adding features for the sake of adding features.

Someone says, “What if we made a product that did A, B, C?”
A colleague chimes in: “For 20% more, we could also have it do X, Y, and Z…” Soon someone has tacked on L-M-N-O-P and before we know it, we’ve got half the alphabet on board!
The result is often a product that kind of does a lot of things, but doesn’t do any of them well.

But when resources are constrained, you’re forced to focus on the objectives that truly matter. The resulting clarity often creates a product that only does a few things, but does them exceptionally well.

Constraints require resourcefulness
When resources are abundant, the easiest solution to a problem is “throw more money/people/etc. at it!” But when those things dry up, you’re forced to get resourceful. You start digging through the supply closet, rounding up leftover parts from past projects, and pulling in help from team members who work in other departments.

Combing these odds and ends often ends up leading to an unexpected breakthrough that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Constraints inspire innovation
When we feel constrained, it’s natural to push against those constraints. And when we do, we find gaps. We find soft spots. We find ways to work within and around the constraints to get the job done.

We start asking questions like, “What tools do I have available? How could I get more out of those tools? How could I use those tools in new and unexpected ways?” Those questions can lead to innovative solutions that wouldn’t have been found in a resource-rich environment.

Constraints foster collaboration
When you don’t have money or staff to solve a problem, you do the next best thing: phone a friend!

That’s a smart move. The odds are that someone in your network has solved a problem very similar to the one you’re trying to solve now. Maybe they’ve solved the same problem in a different industry, or at a different scale, or with a slightly different set of constraints. But by hearing their story, you’ll save yourself time, money, and headaches.
But the best part is this: collaboration works both ways! Oftentimes as the conversation unfolds you discover that you have the solution to one of their problems too. It’s a win-win.

Constraints build resiliency and strength

I was once speaking at a high school in New York when a girl asked if I’d like to buy some fundraising chocolates to support her field hockey team.
I asked “Are you guys any good?” She laughed and said “No, we’re terrible!”

Her friend jumped in and said “Well, the team is terrible, but she’s actually really good. She’s the fourth best goalie in the nation.”

I asked the girl “Is that true?” and she nodded.

“That’s amazing!” I said. Then the girl said something I’ll never forget.

“When your team stinks, you get a lot of opportunities to be a good goalie.”

The truth is, tough times build tough people. When you’re forced to work in difficult environments, you build skill sets that will serve you for years to come. Because of her work on that “terrible” team, the girl was getting a full ride scholarship to play field hockey in college. Her struggles had elevated her to a position where she was able to shine.

Creative thinkers are often described as “thinking outside the box”. But the reality is that true creativity thrives within constraints. Truly creative individuals find ways to work inside the box, building within the parameters they are given to produce unexpected, brilliant results.

These days there are plenty of outside constraints forced upon us: Rising interest rates, workforce shortages, supply chain issues, recession fears, the list goes on and on. In times like these, it’s easy to think “We should pull back. We should hold off. We should wait until the seas calm.” But that’s a mistake. Tough times are when true innovators shine.

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