Turning Limitations into Innovation
When "balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible," constraints can shape and focus problems, leading to truly creative solutions
As vice-president for search products and user experience at Google (GOOG ), I work with a team that defines the features, functions, and operations of the company's core products -- including Web search, Google News, Google Labs, Toolbar, and others. In product management, our job is to harness the creative forces of Google engineers and meld that creativity into something that the end users can use and appreciate.
Creativity is often misunderstood. People often think of it in terms of artistic work -- unbridled, unguided effort that leads to beautiful effect. If you look deeper, however, you'll find that some of the most inspiring art forms -- haikus, sonatas, religious paintings -- are fraught with constraints. They're beautiful because creativity triumphed over the rules. Constraints shape and focus problems, and provide clear challenges to overcome as well as inspiration. Creativity, in fact, thrives best when constrained.
Yet constraints must be balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible. Disregarding the bounds of what we know or what we accept gives rise to ideas that are nonobvious, unconventional, or simply unexplored. The creativity realized in this balance between constraint and disregard for the impossible are fueled by passion and result in revolutionary change.
CLOCKING IN. A few years ago, I met Paul Beckett, a talented designer who makes sculptural clocks. When I asked him why not just do sculptures sans clocks, he said he liked the challenge of making something artistically beautiful that also had to perform as a clock. Framing the problem that way really freed his creative force.
Paul reflected that he also found it easier to paint on a canvas that had a mark on it than to start with a canvas that was entirely clean and white. This resonated with me. It's often easier to direct your energy when you start with constrained challenges (a sculpture that must be a clock) or constrained possibilities (a canvas that is marked). These constraints fuel passion and imagination. They generate creativity.
In product development, constraints come in many forms. They can be terms on which the problem must be solved. At Google, the products and services that we deliver have to work well in varied and confined user environments.
SETTING LIMITS. Consider, for example, our recent release of the new Google Toolbar Beta. When we develop a new version of the toolbar, we can't simply contemplate what would be useful or which features users ask for most. We also need to think about how to create a toolbar that works for all users regardless of whether their screen resolutions can fit five buttons across or 35.
We need to make sure that it's fast to download even over a dial-up connection. The new toolbar has a lot of new functionality, but it's also constrained in download size to just 625K, and it lets the users customize how many and which buttons should be included.
Constraints can give you speed and momentum. In shaping the process used to design a product, constraints can actually speed up development. For example, we can often get a quick sense of just how good a new concept is if we prototype for only one day or for one week. Or, we'll keep team size to three people or less. By limiting how long we work on something or how many people work on it, we limit our investment.
FAILING FASTER. In the case of the Toolbar Beta, several of the key features (custom buttons, shared bookmarks) were prototyped in less than a week. In fact, during the brainstorming phase, we tried out about five times as many key features -- many of which we discarded after a week of prototyping. Since only 1 in every 5 to 10 ideas work out, the strategy of constraining how quickly ideas must be proven allows us try out more ideas faster, increasing our odds of success.
Speed also lets you fail faster. Have you ever wondered how a product so lame got to market, a movie so bad actually got released, a government policy so misguided got passed?
In cases like these, the people working on it have spent so much time and are so personally invested that it's too painful to walk away. They often know the project is misguided, yet they see the effort through to the painful, unsuccessful end. That's why it's important to discover failure fast and abandon it quickly. A limited investment makes it easier to walk away and move on to something else that has a better chance of success.
CHANGING THE WORLD. But constraints alone can stifle and kill creativity. They can lead to pessimism and despair. So while we need constraints in order to fuel passion and insight, we also need a sense of hopefulness that keeps us engaged and unwaveringly in search of the right idea. It is from the interaction between constraint and the disregard for the impossible that unexpected insights, cleverness, and imagination are borne.
Henry Ford once said, "If I'd listened to customers, I'd have given them a faster horse." True creativity makes the impossible possible. It can revolutionize a product, a business, the economy, and the world around us.
Les adjunto también un video de Marissa Mayer llamado "Creativity loves Constrains" (La Creatividad ama las Restricciones).