September 27, 2016 - No Comments!

The power of constraints to drive successful innovation

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to hear innovation expert Larry Keeley speak at Singularity University’s Global Summit Conference. Larry is the cofounder of the design innovation firm Doblin, now part of Deloitte Consulting, and is the author of the insightful and comprehensive book, The Ten Types of Innovation: The Discipline of Building Breakthroughs.

Larry has been advancing the field of design-driven innovation for over thirty years, blending the rigor of a social scientist and a design educator with the real world execution of a seasoned senior strategist. In his talk at the Global Summit, Larry passionately summarized his findings from one of the longest longitudinal research projects on innovation.

Here’s his sobering punch line: Most companies can’t innovate.

Why? Not because they don’t have great ideas, or enough funding, or aspirational missions.

In practice, it’s because they haven’t clearly identified the parameters and constraints of their innovation effort.

In other words, according to Keeley, they haven’t identified what is “tight” (non-negotiable, protected, and stable), and what is “loose” (open for experimentation, iteration, and co-creation).

This may seem counter-intuitive to many people who think of innovation as an open ideation process. Doesn’t innovation require creativity and unconstrained thinking? Aren’t we limiting ourselves if we start the process with constraints?

All too often, when companies embark on an innovation effort they start with a complete blue sky approach, the “let a 1000 flowers bloom” model, encouraging every idea from any direction. But, in reality, the best companies understand that you just can’t tend a whole new garden at once.

Successful, scalable innovation requires strategic discipline in order to focus creative energy on the elements that are open to change.

That strategic discipline starts with identifying clear design criteria that outline the core requirements that the innovation effort must meet.

These requirements may be defined as business requirements (e.g. must drive new revenue, contribute profit, drive costs down, etc.); they may include functional requirements for the product or service (e.g. must be easy to use, accessible, simple, etc.); they may be user experience requirements (e.g. must be delightful, fun, joyful, etc.); or they may be related to the organization’s strategic needs (e.g. most drive learning, must engage with external partners). A clear set of design criteria helps the team stay focused on what really matters, while also avoiding unnecessary time and effort on the things that either aren’t truly open to change or aren’t identified as a priority.

When you start to look for it, you can see how a disciplined design criteria informs many of the products and services we consider “well designed.” Apple’s strict design criteria of a minimalist product interface can be traced back to Steve Job’s relentless pursuit of simplicity. AirBnB’s design focus on creating a sense of home and inclusiveness not only informs its core branding “Belong Anywhere,” it also informs its new service offerings and its internal culture. AirBnB’s offices in San Francisco, for example, are open and transparent, with different work spaces designed to represent different types of accommodations that they offer.

You can even spot clear design criteria in seemingly “unscripted” reality television shows. The award winning show Top Chef, for example, starts out each show with a “Quick Fire Challenge.” The contestants are given a set amount of time, usually under 60 minutes, and clear instructions on what they must deliver in that time. Quick Fires have included making a gourmet meal from vending machine ingredients, or a delicious comfort breakfast, or a one-bite amuse bouche appetizer. The challenges never script how or specifically what the chefs’ make – that’s up to the individual chef’s imagination, past experience and ability to execute. The strict guidelines of these challenges help ignite and amplify the creativity of the competing chefs, often enabling the chefs to perform at a higher level than they do in the longer challenges where they have more open guidelines.

In practice, the design criteria will be context and organizational specific, varying from project to project. But taking time to align the strategic and organizational goals of the effort and making them visible to everyone, before any ideation begins, is an essential part of preparing for any innovation process.

Creating a design criteria is often the most important (and overlooked) step of the entire process.

In Design A Better Business: New Tools, Strategy and Mindset for Strategy and Innovation, we offer a simple tool called the Design Criteria Canvas to help teams get on the same page when it comes to the core elements that matter most. The Design Criteria Canvas forces teams to prioritize the non-negotiable, the “must have” elements and identify the other items that might be useful, but aren’t mandatory. Equally important, the Design Criteria Canvas outlines the elements that should not be included, the “won’t have” elements, and therefore should not receive any precious resources or development time during the process.


When we first started working on Design A Better Business, one of the first things we did as a team was create a visual and shared design criteria. This criteria served as our “north star” while we tackled the ambitious task of writing, designing and producing the book with a diverse and globally distributed team.

Design Criteria for Design A Better Business Book 


Must Haves: (the non-negotiables) The book must be visibly interesting, accessible anywhere, available in multiple formats. It must be seen as the field guide for innovators everywhere. It must bring together all the tools, skills and mindsets in one place through live examples and lived examples.

Should Haves: (non-vital, but useful criteria) The book should have case studies from many different companies we’ve worked with and from multiple industries. It should be useful for many different use cases and appeal to early adopters.

Could Haves: (lower priority, not mission-critical) The book could have links to more online content and adjacent elements that are connected but not core to the work.

Won’t Haves: (things we will NOT do) The book will not be a typical business book. It will not be all words, it will not be pure theory. It will not be one color.

The result? By placing our energy on the “must” and “should haves” while avoiding the “won’t haves,” we were able to create our book in just 100 days of writing and design time. And we’re pretty happy with the outcome.

Visit Design a Better Business to download the Design Criteria Canvas and learn more about how you can use it with other tools to help you design a better business.

How can you use the Design Criteria Canvas to set the strategic guidelines and the possibilities for your next project?

Published by: Lisa in Publications

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