By Chris Cannon

Great ideas are often forged in the crucible of adversity. History’s most daunting challenges have catalyzed some of our greatest innovation opportunities, turning limitations into springboards for creativity.


History’s most daunting challenges have catalyzed some of our greatest innovation opportunities, turning limitations into springboards for creativity.
From the proliferation of thrift stores to counter a new era of waste from mass production in the 19th century, to the DIY culture spawned by modern-day economic pressures in the 21st century, challenges consistently unlock human ingenuity and become the principle drivers of game-changing innovation.

The Catalyst of Constraints

Constraints can focus the mind, forcing it to use resources more efficiently and effectively. When the usual pathways are blocked, we are pushed to think differently, leading to breakthroughs in innovation.

The Great Depression, for instance, spawned numerous innovative business models in direct response to the economic constraints of the era.

The layaway plan became widely popular as a way for cash-strapped consumers to reserve and pay for goods in installments without additional interest. This approach allowed people to budget for necessary purchases without the need for credit, which was often unavailable or too costly during the economic downturn.

The double feature, where two films were shown for the price of one ticket, countered the decline in movie theater attendance by offering greater value and escape during tough economic times. This model provided affordable leisure to the public and helped keep theaters in business by reducing costs and increasing attendance.

Penny restaurants – offering basic meals for just a cent, or full meals for 5 cents – provided a dignified dining option that contrasted with the charity of soup kitchens. This innovative model not only combated hunger but also reinforced community morale and cohesion, exemplifying a compassionate response to the challenges of the era.

The same spirit of ingenuity that found innovation opportunities in the Great Depression is tackling our current global crises of sustainability and social justice. Environmental and social pressures are prompting a surge of technological disruptions and fresh business models, where innovators are uncovering hidden opportunities for creativity and market leadership.

  • Notpla: Tackling the challenge of plastic waste, Notpla developed an innovative packaging solution made from seaweed and plants that is biodegradable and even edible. Their alternative to plastic packaging turns the environmental crisis into a chance for substantial business growth and impact.
  • Zipline: Facing the issue of delivering medical supplies to remote areas, Zipline used drone technology to facilitate on-demand aerial delivery, particularly in Rwanda, where road transport can be slow and unreliable. This challenge led to a pioneering approach in logistics and healthcare access.
  • Fairphone: Driven by the challenge of unsustainable practices in the electronics industry, Fairphone created a modular smartphone focused on fair labor practices and repairability that reduces waste. This not only offers a more sustainable choice for consumers but also sets a new standard in the electronics market.

Strategies for Converting Challenges into Innovation Opportunities

The ability to convert challenges into opportunities hinges first on a shift in mindset. Reframing problems with a positive outlook helps us identify hidden opportunities within the constraints.

Leaders play a crucial role in fostering this environment that sees challenges not as dead-ends but as avenues for growth. By encouraging a culture that rewards risk-taking and values creative problem-solving, leaders can inspire their teams to push the boundaries of what’s possible.

To drive yourself or your team towards new ways of thinking, experiment with these artificial limitations:

Drive resourcefulness by limiting resources

Imposing resource constraints directly stimulates innovative thinking by pushing teams into a problem-solving mode, forcing them to identify the most valuable and impactful elements to focus on. This scarcity of resources compels them to creatively maximize what is available, often leading to simpler, more elegant solutions that might have been overlooked in a resource-rich environment. It encourages a mindset where every resource is precious, fostering innovative approaches to extend their utility and effectiveness.

Allocating a smaller budget, for example, compels a team to prioritize essential features over nice-to-have ones, which can lead to more streamlined and user-focused product designs. Limiting materials or tools may also encourage innovative approaches that circumvent traditional methods, leading to new efficiencies or inventions. Imagine you are an A.I. developer with little access to high-end computing resources, for instance, which drives you to develop a lightweight, cloud-based algorithm that opens up a market to sell to other small developers.

Narrow processes to specific approaches

Focusing on specific methodologies can catalyze innovation by sharpening the team’s creative focus. When you limit the processes to particular approaches, such as implementing only Agile methodologies or adhering strictly to sustainable design principles, it pushes the team to explore these frameworks more thoroughly. This deep dive often uncovers innovative applications of the methodologies that might have been overlooked in a broader approach.

For instance, committing solely to Agile methodologies could lead a team to discover more efficient ways of iterative development, enhancing their ability to rapidly prototype and refine products based on real-time feedback. Similarly, adhering strictly to sustainable design principles might lead to the discovery of innovative recycling techniques or the use of unconventional eco-friendly materials, thereby promoting sustainability and opening up new avenues in product development.

This focused approach not only cultivates a deeper understanding of the chosen methodologies but also compels the team to critically evaluate each step in the process. This scrutiny often results in more thoughtful, creative outcomes and can inspire groundbreaking solutions that align closely with the chosen approach.

Define specific outcome requirements

Setting strict outcome requirements is a potent way to fuel innovation. By demanding specific, ambitious outcomes, such as a significant reduction in energy consumption or full accessibility for users with disabilities, teams are challenged to rethink standard practices. These stringent goals act as a catalyst for innovative thinking, pushing teams to explore unconventional solutions and new technologies. It’s a direct challenge to overcome perceived limitations and find creative ways to achieve the set goals, often leading to groundbreaking innovations that redefine what’s possible in a given field.

In each of these strategies, the act of imposing challenges is not just a backdrop but a direct instigator of innovative thinking. By setting these constraints, leaders can create an environment where innovation is not just encouraged but is a necessary response to the challenges presented.

Focus on a niche market

Concentrating on a specific niche market can be a powerful strategy for innovation. This approach involves tailoring products or services to meet the unique needs of a targeted customer group, often overlooked or underserved by larger competitors. By focusing on a niche, teams can dive deeply into understanding the specific preferences, challenges, and behaviors of that market segment.

This deep dive can reveal unmet needs or pain points that broader market strategies might miss. By requiring that a service must be accessible to a particular underserved population, teams might develop new delivery models that open up markets and meet social needs simultaneously. For instance, designing a product exclusively for elderly users might involve unique ergonomic features or simplified technology, addressing challenges specific to that demographic. Similarly, focusing on eco-conscious consumers could lead to innovations in sustainable packaging or energy-efficient product designs.

By dedicating efforts to a niche market, teams not only create solutions that are highly tailored and relevant but also establish a strong market presence in areas less saturated by competitors. This focused approach can lead to more loyal customer bases and open opportunities for growth and expansion within that specialized field.

Using the Business Model Canvas to Challenge Your Mindset

Every part of your business model is a potential constraint or opportunity. So let’s take Osterwalder’s famous Business Model Canvas apart one step at a time and see what imposing constraints can do for us.

We are big fans of burritos and food trucks at Kromatic, so let’s apply our restraints to a basic food truck setup.

  • Key Partnerships
    • Remove each partnership, one by one. How do you get by on your own?
      • Goodbye one-size tortilla supplier! Hello making our own tortillas that fit the different sized meals!
  • Key Activities
    • What happens if you can’t perform your key activities?
      • We can’t fold our tortillas into a nice wrap? Time to make burrito bowls instead.
  • Key Resources
    • What would removing a resource make you do?
      • Not enough cooking room in the truck. Time to partner with a restaurant?
  • Value Propositions
    • Take away elements of your value proposition and see what innovation opportunities present themselves.
      • “Feeding people quickly” no longer top of your list? Rebrand yourself as a slow-food truck.
  • Channels
    • Limit the ways you engage with customers.
      • We no longer have room for an ordering counter. Paint one side of the truck with a QR code that allows customers to place their order without standing in line.
  • Customer Relationships
    • Imagine your only relationship is in the food transactions.
      • Build brand loyalty and extra profit with a focus on that sweet burrito merch.
  • Customer Segments
    • Pick a segment and say goodbye to it. What’s next?
      • The downtown lunch scene is dying. Change targets to become a wedding caterer.
  • Cost Structure
    • Alter an element of your cost structure and imagine how you would overcome it.
      • Labor costs are through the roof, and you are a living-wage employer. Maybe your business would do better as a co-op or you’ll need a new key partner – a robot burrito barista?
  • Revenue and Pricing
    • What if you couldn’t charge per burrito?
      • Create a monthly subscription model or try all-you-can-eat pricing.


Today’s Challenges

These strategies emphasize the importance of mindset. The journey from challenge to innovation is one that requires a shift in perspective – seeing constraints not as barriers but as the very foundation upon which innovative solutions are built.

The challenges of today — climate change, supply chain disruptions, war, pandemics, social inequality — are immense. But so are the opportunities for innovation they present. Constraints can offer potential blueprints for tackling these issues, because today’s challenges are incubators for tomorrow’s innovations.


Lessons Learned

  • Constraints have a funny way of focusing the mind.
  • Artificial constraints can drive innovation in your organization.
  • Today’s challenges are recruiting tomorrow’s innovators.


Additional Resources

  • The Necessity of Strangers by Alan Gregerman: The surprising ways strangers can help us innovate and create new opportunities.
  • A Beautiful Constraint by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden: A new approach to turning limitations into inspirations for innovation.
  • Global Innovation Exchange: A dynamic online platform that encourages cross-pollination of innovative ideas across different sectors.
  • Innovation Leader: Tools, insights, and strategies for driving corporate innovation.
  • TED Talks on Innovation: Engage with a diverse range of experts discussing their approaches to overcoming challenges and innovating.
  • “Innovation Through Design” by Coursera: Design thinking and how it can be applied to solve complex problems creatively.
  • Innovation in a Time of Crisis” in Harvard Business Review: How businesses have adapted their innovation strategies during COVID-19.


Special thanks to Tristan Kromer for reviewing and giving feedback on this post.

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