Innovation Must Know Limitation

It helps to know tradition if you want to subvert it.


If you want an unparalleled ice breaker for a newly formed team, if you want to warm up the grey matter ahead of a strategy or solution session, if you want insight into how your people think, start with a question. Not just any question. Try this one.

“Think about the constraints and limitations we have in our unit/department/company. Which limitations do you find enabling (the ones that keep us out of trouble)? And which are disabling (the ones that hold us back)?”

I’ve been a fan of deep questions ever since I experienced a “peace corps” style interview when I was quite young. The interview questions literally hurt my head. They described scenarios I may be facing on the job, which included conflict, physical danger, moral dilemmas and ethical compromises. The goal was to grasp the constraints and limitations and respond with workable solutions and creative alternatives. I left the interview with a raging headache, seething with anger for having been put through hell, but I took the job offer when it came. It was difficult and fulfilling work, with many constraints and limitations, as advertised. However, my solutions on the ground were very, very different than what I imagined before I became a part of the organization (except one).


“It helps to know tradition if you want to subvert it.”

As Daniel Dennett writes in Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, (by way of Farnam Street blog),“It helps to know tradition if you want to subvert it.” It stands to reason that people who are intimately familiar with the system and its thorny limitations can be a fount of innovation.

Am I against fresh blood and new perspectives? Of course not. But the map is not the territory; and if you’re not famili