For most people, the beginning of a design problem is thrilling. It’s full of excitement and anticipation. You get to start with a completely blank canvas, imagining all of the wonderful things to come. The sky’s the limit. There’s just one problem — a world of infinite possibilities is actually pretty bad for creativity. We know, we know; this might sound like sacrilege to some of you. How can you possibly be creative if your wings are clipped? Shouldn’t we try to ‘think outside the box’, not shove ourselves into one? In short, the answer is no.
In my last article, I wrote about why ‘thinking outside the box’ is bad, because it implies you should forget about the constraints of your design problem. These boundaries shouldn’t be ignored; they should be embraced. They act as guardrails, preventing your designs from crashing and burning and instead keeping you on track throughout the creative process.
The best example of an innovative company embracing constraints is SpaceX. After looking over how they were able to do this, I realized that there are actually 3 superpowers that come with embracing constraints: 1) getting off to the races right away, 2) making better decisions, and 3) optimizing your time. If you’re interested in more information on these three superpowers, feel free to head back to my previous article. But if like me, you’re convinced that embracing constraints can help us be more innovative then you’re most likely asking yourself: how do I do that??
When I first started thinking about this, the answer seemed complicated. How are we supposed to know what all of the boundaries are before we even begin? Wouldn’t it just be easier to start first and figure out the boundaries later on? Well, the hard truth is that boundaries exist whether we like them or not. Given that they’re a fact of life, it’s far better to acknowledge them right away and face them with clear eyes (and full hearts). So with this mentality, I decided to continue examining SpaceX’s original constraints to see if I could find any overall patterns or a way to categorize them. And believe it or not, I didn’t have to ‘think outside the box’ to find the answer. In fact, the answer ended up being a box all along. And just like any self-respecting quadrilateral, there are four boundaries to every innovation problem.
The first is money. (Turns out it's only 25% about the Benjamins.) Whether you realize it or not, your project has a budget. It may be $0 or like SpaceX it may be $100 million, but it’s important to know where in that range you fall, because when you come up with ideas, some are going to be expensive and some are going to be relatively cheap. There’s no point in pursuing any of the ideas that are beyond what you could possibly afford to develop. In addition to the initial investment, many innovations face a monetary constraint of needing to “pay off” for the organization that’s creating it. Sometimes this means generating a certain amount of profit. Other times it means generating enough money so that the project can sustain itself moving forward. Relentlessly pursuing an idea that you could never hope to pay for or has no chance of paying off will ultimately end up in failure and disappointment. So instead, understand your money boundary early so that you only spend your time developing ideas you can afford.
In SpaceX’s case, the money boundary was probably the clearest and most driving constraint right from the beginning. While Elon Musk might seem like he has an endless bank compared to our personal checking accounts, it’s nothing compared to the likes of NASA or the Soviet Union’s space program. Everyone who joined SpaceX knew they only had so much funding to build a rocket and turn a profit.
Unless you’re Hootie and Blowfish (defeating time through the power of song), you’re gonna have to face the fact that you’ve only got so much time to devote to your innovation. How can we embrace this? You need to think long and hard about how much time you and your organization are willing to devote to this project before it starts to feel like you’re taking time away from something more important. The last thing you want is to spend months researching and empathizing with your users only to realize that you’ve actually left yourself no time to actually build something to make their lives better! When you know you’ve got some extra time, you can give a little extra love to a nagging detail, and when you’re short on time, you can make smart decisions to prioritize the most important things left in your project.
In SpaceX’s case, the time they had to come up with a solution was also very clear. This boundary manifested itself on three scales. The smallest scale were the individual launch dates that SpaceX set. Engineers only had so much time to get their parts built and ready to go before the launch sequence reached zero. The second scale for this boundary is the overall time that they had to design and build a successful rocket before they went bankrupt. They only had so many failed attempts before their time was up. And the final level this boundary appeared (and continues to appear) is on an intergalactic scale. Elon believes that we only have so much time left on Earth before we have to find a place to live on Mars (and other planets). It’s this boundary that continues to drive them to innovate.
The third boundary for your project is the people working on it. Whether you’re a team of one or one hundred, you can only do what you can do. You and your team have a set of skills. Some of your ideas might call for something that’s beyond your skill set. In some cases, this is perfectly fine; you can add new specialists to the team or learn the new skill yourself. But in other cases, an idea can call for something beyond your reach. The sooner you realize this, the sooner you can ditch these ideas instead of fruitlessly spinning your wheels.
In SpaceX’s case, Musk decided to focus on hiring young talent fresh out of college as opposed to experienced industry veterans. This was done to create an entirely different culture at SpaceX. Elon didn’t want the bureaucratic type of office processes that exist in most other spacecraft companies. Instead, he was looking for his company to operate like a traditional Silicon Valley startup. And he expected every employee to embrace their own personal constraint that they didn’t know what they were doing. He wanted them to embrace the mindset that Jeff Bezos calls the ‘beginner’s mindset’ (we’ve got a great article detailing that here). By embracing uncertainty, every employee was expected to redesign every part of every rocket with a fresh perspective.
Space, the final frontier — er — boundary. The world we live in is physical, and despite the universe being infinite, we only have so much space to work with. The boundary of space can manifest itself in a myriad of ways depending on your project. You may be teaching in a classroom that’s a particular size, or maybe you’re designing a building that has to fit on a certain plot of land, or maybe your app needs to work on a particularly small screen. Whatever the case, your users are going to experience your design within the context of some sort of physical space that you need to consider when evaluating the early ideas for your design. Space is also a boundary for your process of actually creating a design. Whether it’s in a studio or an office or a dorm, your workspace will influence your design.
In SpaceX’s case, a big part of their space boundary is… space. Definitely, very meta so try not think about it too much. Aside from the constraint of their rockets actually flying in space, SpaceX had to embrace the constraint of where their rockets were built, where they would launch from, and where they would land. Some of these constraints they learned the hard way. In one particular case, when they were transporting their rocket via a large cargo plane to the launch site, they forgot to take into account the difference in air pressure and their rocket began to fall apart in transit. In another example, their engineers volunteered (or were voluntold) to live on the launch site in Hawaii in order to finish putting together and making adjustments to the rocket before launch.
Just Pretend You’re SpaceX
Together, these four boundaries — money, time, people, and space — act as the “bumpers” for your design process’s bowling lane. By identifying them and making them clear to all involved early in the process, you can make sure that you keep your project from accidentally veering off in the wrong direction, wasting precious resources, and ultimately, risking failure. Instead, use these boundaries to keep you on the path to success.
And while it’s relatively easy to look at this boundary box and talk about all of the constraints SpaceX has faced on their road to success, we still might struggle with how to apply this. When we start a design problem, we don’t have the power of foresight. So how are we supposed to even know what our constraints are? This question cuts at the core of why embracing constraints is so difficult.
When we first start solving a problem, our boundaries are often very fuzzy. We aren’t always sure what they are. In fact, they might even change throughout the process. But just because they’re difficult to assess doesn’t mean we shouldn’t always embrace them. So if you’re struggling to apply this lesson, don’t panic -- just pretend that you’re SpaceX, embrace your boundaries, and shoot for the stars!