Thinking Inside the Box: How Constraints Can Help Drive Successful Innovation

As Orson Welles famously said: “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” But limitations play a vital role in far more than just art: constraints are at the heart of all kinds of innovation.

Consider this scenario: It’s fifth grade. You’re in art class. The teacher points to the closet, brimming with all kinds of art supplies, and offers no direction except “Make something.” Maybe you do — or maybe you exit class an hour later with nothing to show for your time. But, alternatively, what if the teacher handed you a 36” x 48” sheet of paper and instructed you to draw your bedroom from memory using only a red pen?

Each of the components in the latter scenario — the size of the paper, the writing utensil, the delineated image — represents a specific constraint. And together they create boundaries that aid the creator in producing better work.

On the surface, it seems paradoxical to suggest that limitations — of time, money, human and natural resources — can be in any way beneficial, but research suggests that such constraints are actually crucial to creative output.

Artist Phil Hansen sees limitation as a source of innovation. After having developed a tremble in his hand that he believed had destroyed his dreams of becoming an artist, he soon learned to “embrace the shake,” and in the process he discovered a new way of creating art that was “perpetual and unencumbered by results.”

While involuntary limitations such as Hansen’s shaking hand can certainly inspire innovative approaches, many others in the business world are calling for self-imposed constraints to boost productivity. Technology executive Marissa Mayer points out that constraints can actually speed up corporate progress. “By limiting how long we work on something or how many people work on it, we limit our investment,” she writes in a Bloomberg article in 2006. Limited investment means that more time and money can be spent on a wider variety of ideas, thereby increasing the chance of success.

Having constraints also forces people to take on more innovative strategies in order to accomplish an intended goal. Researchers at Cass Business School and Bocconi University conducted an experiment to investigate the effects of financial constraints on product development. They found that while unlimited options tend to stifle creativity, “constraints such as limiting the number of available materials or imposing a budget can actually lead to more creative solutions.”

In the tech world, there are some very big players with seemingly unending resources. While some believe those players will continue to dominate the future, their vast resources may actually end up working against them. Tech giants have spent billions of dollars in the past trying to solve some of the world’s biggest problems, often to no avail. Perhaps their failures weren’t due to a lack of resources, but to a lack of constraints.

At Aspire, we believe in the efficacy of constraints and we use a number of strategies to create appropriate boundaries that make us more efficient, more focused, and more apt to arrive at the best solutions. Here are a just a few ways we’re using constraints to stimulate innovation:

  1. Our tech pattern. All of our ventures must utilize cloud computing, sensor integration, mobile capabilities, and our A²I platform. Ensuring our venture companies use these four pillar technologies keeps us focused and ensures we’re taking full advantage of all of our resources, including our libraries of reusable components. Setting aside ideas that do not benefit from our tech pattern speeds up our progress and leads to better results.
  2. Our model. Once assessed, each of our ventures run through a venture development pipeline — a phase-based maturation model that begins with ideation and ends with the venture “leaving the nest.” Upon completion of each phase, we assess the venture’s progress using our built-in “go/no-go” process to determine whether or not to continue with the project. These checkpoints allow us to build in time constraints for each project, thus limiting our investment and limiting the risk of each venture.
  3. Our design strategy. For design and development, we use time-constrained processes like design sprints to help us arrive at the best solutions sooner. We also rigidly maintain specific design constraints unique to each project and it’s user stories — whether it’s limitations on scope, on technology, or on accessibility.
  4. Our focus. At Aspire, we believe not in incremental but transformational change. That’s why we limit our investments to companies that will have a positive impact on the world, with special emphasis in precision medicine. Supporting ventures that share our passion for changing the world hones our focus and creates more synergistic value between our ventures.

Whether self-imposed or externally manifest, constraints will always be present — it’s not a matter of how to get rid of them, but of how to convert them into advantages. Conventional wisdom advises us to think outside of the box — but if it’s the right size and shape, why should we waste energy and resources thinking our way out of it?

“Most of what we do [in life] takes place here, inside the box, with limited resources,” Phil Hansen reminds us. “Learning to be creative within the confines of our limitations is the best hope we have to transform ourselves and, collectively, transform the world.”

Bricks and Bits for a Blended Healthcare Experience

Consumer habits are changing faster than ever. Whether from macroeconomic pressures, generational shifts, or technological innovation, the way we shop and the things we buy are going through a profound transformation. The change is impacting nearly every industry, and some sectors are struggling to adapt to the new consumer.

At the forefront of this change are the millennials. According to economists, millennials are more interested in spending money on experiences than they are in owning stuff — and they may be onto something. An abundance of psychology research has shown that spending money on experiences brings more happiness than spending money on things. Experiential purchases create a more enduring sense of happiness, more anticipation, and have stronger associations to identity, connection, and social behavior.

And this shift might not just be generational: for example, Americans across the board are eating out more now than ever before, with restaurant spending overtaking grocery spending for the first time in 2016. The same uptick in experiential purchases is occurring in air travel, tourism, and entertainment, while retailers are struggling to keep shoppers interested.

So if the shift isn’t generational, then what’s causing the change?

Digital technology is opening up new ways to experience traditional services and goods, and that’s creating a fundamental change in our economic behavior. The millennials, the first digital natives, were only the first to convert.

The result is a new reality for business, with digital experiences that pose serious threats to traditional models. While some fret the potential death of traditional brick and mortar establishments, others are scrambling to keep up by redefining their own customer experience.

Six years ago, Marc Andreessen famously wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “software is eating the world,” meaning traditional businesses were being disrupted and supplanted by software-driven models. But are brick and mortar businesses truly going the way of the dinosaur? Amazon, a pioneer in online retail and a primary subject in Andreessen’s article, may provide a clue. Recently, they’ve begun opening their own brick and mortar bookstores in several states, as well as a high-tech grocery store in Seattle with no check-outs. The stores, Amazon says, are extensions for their online presence. Alibaba, Amazon’s Asian equivalent, is doing the same thing in China with luxury brands.

It appears that digital experiences can’t replace the value of real-life ones, at least not yet. Customers still like browsing for books among the shelves, just as they prefer to try on a pair of shoes, or touch and feel a shirt’s fabric before they buy it.

Despite the threats online retail giants pose to traditional stores, Amazon and Alibaba’s recent forays into brick and mortar help to point a way forward for everyone. The future, it seems, is in a blended customer experience where physical and digital experiences work together and complement one another.

“With consumers already living a blended physical/digital life,” writer Brad Howarth asks in a recent CMO article, “shouldn’t providers of physical experiences be stepping up to deliver accompanying digital ones?”

The answer to Howarth’s question, we believe, is a resounding YES. We need brick-and-mortar establishments that fully integrate digital technologies for an omnichannel experience. It’s a model that we call bricks and bits, and it’s not just for retail, entertainment, transportation, and restaurants.


The healthcare industry, which has yet to go through the significant tech disruption that has occurred in other sectors, stands to benefit the most from a bricks and bits model that blends digital technology with traditional services and physical infrastructure — not just because patients want a better experience, but because it could help to lower costs and improve health outcomes.

It’s only a matter of time. The behaviors and expectations of consumers have already gone through a fundamental shift. They’re more informed, more empowered, and more connected than ever before, writes Clara Shih in TechCrunch. Meanwhile, more than 13,000 health and medical apps for mobile devices and wearables are available to those consumers. At some point, “mainstream medicine will have to integrate itself further with the online experience,” Shih writes.

Consumers are ready for it, and the healthcare industry as a whole, with at least one-fifth of healthcare spending going to waste, is in dire need of a digital transformation. Telehealth solutions, mobile diagnostics, and AI-assistance for doctors could help to reduce that waste, while also improving health outcomes. And more digital points of access to care with streamlined scheduling could create a much better patient experience that increases engagement and helps patients manage their health more easily.

At Aspire, we’re not only developing digital health technologies like mobile apps and AI-assisted diagnostics, we’re also investing in brick-and-mortar facilities that will seamlessly integrate the best of digital technologies. The bricks and bits model, we believe, will enable a blended experience that’s better for both the patient and the provider. Our first iteration of that model, Clio Health, is due to open early 2018 in Lancaster, PA.

Clio Health Lancaster, currently in construction, will be a smart healthcare facility designed from the ground up to integrate digital technologies that streamline the patient experience and lower costs. It will include a specialty hospital, physician offices, and ancillary services. But it will be more than just a hospital — it will be part of a technology ecosystem that will deliver far more points of access for the patient.

Mobile health solutions, artificial intelligence, and telemedicine will never replace living doctors and physical infrastructure. But those solutions need better integration into the care continuum. With a bricks and bits model like Clio Health, we can create a better future for healthcare.