How Constraints Drive the Adoption of Groundbreaking Ideas

Earlier this year I had taken another MOOC on Coursera after the course on Human-Computer Interaction last year: Leading Strategic Innovation in Organizations by Prof. David Owens of Vanderbilt University.


The course was structured around six innovation constraints: Internal factors are creative ideas by individuals, a supportive group and capable execution by the organization while external constraints are a willing market that recognizes utility and value, favorable regulations and a functioning technology.

Innovation constraints framework by Prof. David Owens

One would think that these constraints often only leave room for puny ideas but in fact they also help to focus, to reach agreement in a group, to measure against and in the end to drive adoption. Prof. Owens argues that keeping these constraints in mind and finding ways to overcome them or deal with them is decisive for a successful execution of innovative ideas.


Just recently I stumbled across an article on "Three Big Ideas for Designing Innovations to Work at Scale" that provides a perfect example:

"Edison’s genius lay not only in his technological advances to provide cleaner, cheaper, safer light, but also in his recognition that simply making available rational improvements to the existing lighting system was no guarantee that this reform would achieve broad acceptance. He understood that such innovations confront a complex society with established norms and cultures, ways of working and labor forces, formal regulations, and informal ways of doing things. Understanding how this context could help—or hinder—the spread of his innovation led him to adapt the innovation to seamlessly integrate into 1880s life.


To wit: He dimmed his bulbs to just 13 watts, and he covered his electric lights with lampshades, not because electric lights were at risk from drafts, but so that they were indistinguishable from gas lights. Rather than running his power lines above the roads—which he knew was more technologically efficient—he ran them under the roads to take advantage of the existing labor force and to operate within existing gas regulations so that new regulation would not be necessary for electricity." 

This example provides striking evidence of the need to deal with certain constraints to innovation. Don't expect anyone to change their behavior because of your disruptive innovation but persuade them by easing a smooth transition.


Katrin Mathis, UX Konzepterin und Service Designerin aus Freiburg

Katrin Mathis
MBA in Service Innovation & Design und BSc in OnlineMedien berät seit über 10 Jahren Unternehmen, die digitale Transformation zum Nutzen ihrer Kunden einzusetzen.


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