I was reading Ben Yagoda’s book, When You Catch An Adjective; Kill It, when I came across the following passage: “In Shakespeare’s day, there were no fancy props, so the text had to do the work of stage settings.” Although it was referring to starting sentences with conjunctions, it got me thinking about constraints and the way they foster innovation. Startups operate the same way: you don’t always have the resources to do what you want and are forced to innovate a way out.

Here are some examples:

  • Google realized that scaling vertically was significantly more expensive than scaling horizontally using commodity hardware. To achieve this, they had to create the Google File System to deal with the thousands of computers and the frequent hardware failures.
  • Many computer science algorithms and data structures were created when the CPU speeds were low and memory was lacking. Low CPU speeds led to more efficient graph search algorithms like Djikstra and A*. Limited memory led to the creation of probabilistic data structures like Bloom filters and Skip lists. 
  • The Oakland Athletics baseball team could not compete on salary. But under Billy Beane, they were able to compete by adopting an analytical approach to identify talented, undiscovered baseball players (via Moneyball).
  • Even the Lean Startup methodology, which emphasizes rapid prototyping to quickly test market hypotheses, is a way to deal with the limited financial and time constraints that plague startups.

We often complain about obstacles while ignoring their impact on innovation. If you have any other examples of innovations caused by constraints, please share.


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