A sense of urgency. A tight budget. A lack of resources. What are often perceived as obstacles to innovation can, in fact, be a good thing, rallying employees to make the impossible possible.

The most profound example of this phenomena may be the story of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Apollo 13 mission. Immortalized in the 1995 Tom Hanks movie, the mission faced disaster when a faulty oxygen tank exploded 56 hours into the flight. The resulting damage forced the three astronauts on board—Jim Lovell, Jack Sigert, and Fred Haise—to work with their Houston-based ground crew to deal with a host of catastrophic problems with highly creative, innovative solutions. This involved the Houston-based team building prototype solutions on the ground using random spare parts known to be on board, including plastic bags, duct tape, and even tube socks. The ground team then communicated with the crew on how to build the same solutions in space. The outcome—as we know—was the safe return of the astronauts back to earth.

In spite of all the challenges and constraints that existed, the NASA team was able to overcome it all—making the impossible possible.

But why?

Recent research carried out at the Harvard Business Review found that contrary to popular opinion, teams and organizations actually “benefit from a healthy dose of constraints.” In fact, the HBR researchers discovered that when no constraints exist, employees are complacent and more likely to “take the path of least resistance” versus working harder to further develop new ideas. According to the article, constraints have a positive impact on innovation, motivating employees to look harder for answers and connect new information to find solutions.

The HBR piece goes on to offer strategic insight into how business leaders can embrace constraints as a tool for management and driving better results. According to the article, effective constraints implemented by managers can take on three forms:

  1. Limit inputs: This constraint involves the flow of resources. Managers can put constraints in place, such as holding back funds or human capital, that force teams to look for more efficient ways to spread resources and get things done at a lower cost. 
  2. Enforce processes: Implementing procedures that ensure good behavior is another form of constraints that help ensure execution. This includes requiring early feedback and implementing guidelines for cross-functional teams and collaboration.
  3. Set out requirements: Managers can steer teams to achieve certain goals and objectives by clearly setting product or service requirements, limiting their focus on a few key areas to help keep innovation projects moving.

At the same time, the HBR article notes that managers must not overdo it, and should work to strike the right balance between imposing constraints and allowing for freedom to explore and generate new ideas.

To learn more, including how to map the right types of constraints with the level of innovation you are trying to achieve, read the complete HBR article.