Innovation Thrives Under Constraint

This is not my usual topic, but I’ve done a lot of work looking at innovation, and the conditions under which it thrives.

Evan Williams and Jack Dorsey, founders of Twitter, have talked often of the “constraints” that are built into the Twitter app. You can only post 140 characters in a single message, for example. And because Twitter didn’t have desktop client when it launched, a number of them were created and they are probably better than anything Twitter would have created. Same with the iPhone apps like Twinkle and Twitterific. A VC, Aug 2008

My interest started with looking at innovation levels and the social networks of the individuals involved; and Fred Wilson hit on something really important here: innovation thrives under constraint.

Ask any artist, there’s nothing more more terrifying than a naked canvas, blank sheet of paper, or unformed block of clay.  It is the constraints that give us to innovate something from.  They are the core of the idea that pushes us through writers/painters/coders block.

Robert Pirsig tells us about an experiment in writing.  Students were consistently having difficulty when asked to write about anything they wanted.  So he had them all write for an hour solely about the back of their thumb.  Lots of odd looks surely, but no one had any trouble finding something to say.

Constraints provide focus.  Focus allows execution.  If the goal is creating an external service (e.g. web service), focus also communicates what the service will and will not do — providing clear constraints to the next ring of innovators.