innovation, budgets, resource constraints, fallacies

“One of the banes of successful innovation is that companies may be so committed to innovation that they will give the innovators a lot of money to spend.” – Clayton M. Christensen, academic and business consultant

“There’s nothing efficient about innovation.” – Simon Sinek, author and motivational speaker

“I think frugality drives innovation, just like other constraints do. One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out.” – Jeff Bezos, founder, CEO and president

Three smart modern thinkers. One thinks money gets in the way of innovation; the second thinks innovation is messy and inefficient—which almost by definition means money; the third thinks keeping a tight rein on innovation budgets is the best way to achieve results. So, who is right?

Surprisingly, they all are. 

The Fallacy of Unlimited Budget and Resources

Christensen’s concern that companies will throw money at innovation cautions against extravagant budgets that allow those charged with innovation to waste resources. Want a new piece of equipment? Go ahead. There’s plenty of money. Then spend time playing with—er, I mean—learning how to use it. Well, if it didn’t do the trick, let’s buy the next big thing. 

It’s easy to spend time wastefully when you have money to burn and spending without discipline will not result in innovation.

The Fallacy of ‘Just Try It’, Innovating by Trial and Error

On the other hand, Sinek’s assertion that innovation is inefficient clearly supports the idea that innovation requires trial and error, going down a few dead-end roads and spending a lot of time checking out the “What if…” ideas. Even Thomas Edison supported the idea that innovation required trying alternatives until you finally hit on the one that works.

Time and resources equate to money, so trial and error can be an expensive route to foster innovation in the workplace, which may require the occasional purchase of new equipment, new materials, new software or new toys. But again, innovation without discipline is inefficient and perhaps even ineffective.

The Fallacy that Constraints Inhibit Innovation

Innovation is often seen as somewhat of a free-for-all, with the need to try anything and everything and to roam the bounds of what is possible until one stumbles onto the next big thing. But what if Bezos is right, and we’ve been going about it all wrong?

Bezos’ assertion that the best way to get out of a box is to innovate your way out, which at first seems like an unconventional and restrictive method to innovate, but it may be the most middle-of-the-road approach. He’s not saying spend money; he’s not saying don’t spend money. What he is saying is to define your constraints, whatever they may be. Then innovate to overcome them.

Constraints are the Roadmap for Innovation

Constraints function as the roadmap for innovation. Whether that constraint takes the form of size, shape, weight, functionality, power consumption or any other characteristic, once it has been defined, the innovator knows the trail to follow.

When it comes to funding innovation resources, it’s easy to justify spending or using or hiring or turning to any other resource in terms of addressing the constraint, whatever it might be. If the asked-for resource can’t be justified by the value of overcoming the constraint, then the resource is not necessary. Clean and simple.

Perhaps the best way to innovate is to solve a specific problem with specific resources. Kind of like the Apollo 13 space mission in 1970. When things went wrong two days into the mission, astronaut Jim Lovell and his crew had to ask themselves, “What tools do we have to solve the problem?” With their almost unimaginable constraints, and facing a life-or-death situation, the crew and engineers back on earth had to innovate a viable solution. 

For your next innovation project, consider starting with the constraints. You may find that they become the roadmap to innovation, leading you to your next big idea and the next industry-disrupting innovation.