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Using constraints to inspire breakthrough innovation

Delta Airways has just opened it’s ‘Innovation Class’ for business. If you haven’t heard of it, Delta’s idea is that as they already fly ‘some of the smartest people in the world’, these leaders could use this time in the air to share their knowledge with an up-and-coming professional in the seat next to them. So Delta has in fact created a ‘mile high’ mentoring program – giving innovators the chance to share a few hours with leaders in the field.

For us this innovation is smart because it makes great use of existing resources – all Delta needs to do is make minor adjustments to a booking, it positions the airline as one favoured by movers and shakers and it takes an existing set of behaviours (ie. mentoring and networking) and simply puts them in a new setting.

This gave us two thoughts: the first is about the power of constraints in innovation. Too often innovation is seen only as ‘blue-sky’ and ‘no idea is a bad idea’ discipline. But if you run an innovation approach where you say we can only work with the current assets we have – tweaking them a little as Delta has – it can lead to a wealth of creative solutions, some evolutionary but also some revolutionary. As the old saying goes ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ and who wouldn’t appreciate growth that doesn’t necessitate significant R&D or CAPEX expenditure.

So consider how you can concentrate creativity by establishing some clear constraints, rules or innovation guardrails – deliberately and strategically eliminating avenues of option in order to focus minds. Not only that but working with constraints can also free up people’s imaginations if you want to move into more far-reaching ideation. The evidence shows that freeing people up from looking at a product or service in a fixed or static way, even having plain wrong or ‘bad’ ideas, helps drive creativity.

The second thought is that there is always an opportunity to have your own ‘Delta Innovation Class’. Serendipity is a wonderful thing in innovation, yet too often we remain narrowly focused on a narrow industry or circle of colleagues and friends. Steve Jobs happened to walk into a typography class at University and years later Apple was the first to design computers that had beautiful typefaces – all thanks to that chance encounter. The greater breadth of conversations we have, the more we learn about other fields, the more likely we are to come up with disruptive ideas.

So next time you’re on a flight, instead of sitting down and opening up your laptop why not start by opening up a conversation with your fellow passenger first – who knows where it might lead..?

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