Saturday, March 9, 2019

Of Embracing Constraints and Driving Innovation

Not so long ago, I was speaking with one of the talented engineers (lets call him John) who was involved in a high visibility project as a part of Innovation Program that i was leading. His team had done extremely well to be selected among 5 ideas out of 100+ submissions that came in from diverse set of employees. His had made impeccable, convincing pitch presentations about his idea during the evaluation rounds.

The way this innovation program worked was that the selected employees usually get certain percentage of their time to work on the project. What i have experienced is, even with a strong

management support, the selected teams has to spend far more time than what is allocated to realize the potential of their idea. While not really an ideal situation but that's how most corporate innovation programs function. One could call it a stretch for the participating employees but what good has ever been achieved by staying within the confines of one's comfort zone.

So what John was asking me was that he finds it extremely difficult to manage the innovation project and the regular work he has and the fact that he only has limited time at hand to be making a meaningful contribution. I had a long conversation with him to understand what the root-cause of his condition was. Could it be misalignment with manager ? Could it be an issue with managing time ? Could it be that the theme of innovation project being totally different from his core work ? Could it just be an issue with not being able to multi-task ?

As i delved deeper, i figured out that the core cause leading to the effect he has facing was quite different. To cut the story short, he was finding it very difficult to deal with situation of extreme constraint. The constraint that he was faced with was lack of time. And my analysis of this situation suggested that rather than embracing constraints, he just chose to conflict with the constraints put forward by prevailing situation. And this conflict was stressing him out.

In this insightful article, Ash Maurya makes a compelling point when he says-
We all hustle, struggle, and fight to acquire more resources for our projects. But ironically, when we have these resources in excess, we don’t become efficient. We become wasteful.
At the heart of Lean Start-up approach, that became a sort of gold standard for building successful start-ups, lies a theory which when put into practice teaches us how best to respond to an ultimate constraint of our life. Time.
Start-ups need to find that elusive product-market fit before they run out of time or money or both. 

The of the main reason the Lean Start-up approach became popular was because it taught its followers how to deal with constraints a start-up face. Many facets of Lean Start-up approach like iterating quickly, validating the idea, collecting data before making decisions and going through the build-measure-learn cycle ensured better preparation against the constraints.

In the book 'Disrupt Yourself' that i was reading recently, i found this profound mention:
In 2007, Entrepreneur magazine compiled a list of the five hundred fastest-growing companies in the United States. I was intrigued by the various ways these companies had funded their growth, rather than taking outside cash. Only 28 percent had access to bank loans/lines of credit, 18 percent were funded by private investors, and 3.5 percent received funding from VCs: as many as 72 percent of these successful businesses were pulling themselves up by their boot straps. I believe these companies were successful not in spite of, but because of, their constraints.

And also the book introduces you to this successful case of Pluralsight, which i reproduce below:
A prototype for bootstrapping is Pluralsight, an online training library for developers and information technology professionals. In 2004, Aaron Skonnard and three software developer colleagues launched Pluralsight on a shoestring budget of $20,000. Growth needed to be funded through cash flow, so they were highly incentivized to get the business model right. By 2007, they had grown the company to $2.5 million in revenue. After they pivoted from classroom to online training in 2008 and demand exploded, Pluralsight finally took in outside money in 2012, raising $27.5 million to fund future growth. In 2014, they generated revenue of $60+ million, and CEO Skonnard was recognized as an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year.
There is a common theme emerging from these examples:
1. Constraints are not really the enemy of progress and if dealt with well, can be the cause of progress. Lack of finesse in managing constraints can well be damaging to the project in a short term, and to the business in a longer run.

2. Bootstraping (get into or out of a situation using existing resources) is painful in a short term, but successful in a long run. Short-term discomfort should be embraced in favor of long term gains.

3. Constraints comes in many flavors but mostly wrapped under the covers of knowledge, time and money. Much like less time at hand can improve our focus, less knowledge can be our license to think differently than our incumbents. 

I wrote this article up just so that I meet a John in near-future, I can effectively show the light at the end of tunnel.

What are your secrets of dealing with constraints ?

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