We often ask people, as a training activity, to write down as many ideas as come to mind based on the picture on the screen. We project something simple, like a circle, and give folks fifty seconds to work. Then we ask them to repeat the activity; this time with two guidelines in mind, defer judgment, and go for quantity. We’ll project another basic shape. With the guidelines in mind, most people are able to generate more ideas than they did without any guidelines. Then, after giving two more guidelines, seek the unusual and combine ideas. We’ll repeat the activity again. Often in this third iteration, people get fewer ideas. The reason many give for their reduced productivity is, “I was trying to employ all the guidelines and that distracted me from the task.”
With only fifty seconds to work, asking people to employ four new guidelines, limits productivity and creativity, rather than augmenting it. It’s too much structure.
Here’s a real world example. General Motors was working on an early fuel cell vehicle. One design was a platform called a Hy-wire. It looked a lot like a rectangular skateboard; basically four wheels and a thick flat base where all the mechanicals went. Everything was drive by wire so there was no steering column, because it was all transmitted through electronics. There was no mechanical engine for the transmission, or the brake pedal.
They gave the Hy-wire to the designers and said, “Build a vehicle around this thing.”
The designers looked like deer in the headlights. Normally when you design a car you know where the steering column needs to be. Normally you know where the transmission goes and you can orient around that. But with the Hy-wire, the designers could put the people anywhere.
Effectively, there were no constraints, not even a vision or an aspiration, the designers had to go back to the beginning and develop their own structure in order to move forward at all. This was not even close to their normal design and innovation process, and they wasted a lot of time figuring out how and where to begin.
Structure can be process and it can be content. The structure can be the how you are going to do this, or it can be a vision for where you want to go, or it can be one or two critical criteria, like where the engine and steering column must go. Some structure is useful, too much structure can be debilitating. The answer is always contextual. How many people do you have? What is their creative process? What are they used to? How much time do you have? Say you have one new, truly non-negotiable constraint? Is it useful to make it part of the challenge question, to disclose those upfront and keep them in mind throughout. If it’s the only constraint, and you have a skilled team using a practiced innovation process, the constraint might be a springboard. But if there are other basic constraints or the process you’re using is new to the team, perhaps you have enough structure. You might let that non-negotiable constraint be a criterion you measure ideas against later.
As in many things in life, there is no hard answer, but if you neglect to ask the question; if you don’t try to define the right amount of structure, you might find that you’re the deer in the headlights.