Innovation can help you to own your industry. Yet here’s a curious thing about creative thought: If you apply no rules whatsoever, you will tend to get poor results. Impose some limitations, and you can get much richer thought-offerings. Struggle is one of the birth-places of innovation. 

The dynamic plays out like this: ask a person to name as many blue things as they can and you will get a fairly limited number of answers. Most people will start to struggle after around ten items, and most will tend to start by naming the sky and the sea. The answers are both limited and obvious. 

Now give them a set of restrictive parameters. Ask them, for example, to think of as many blue things as they can name inside a shopping mall. Having provided restrictive parameters, you will tend to get more answers numerically and more creative answers qualitatively. People might start volunteering interesting observations like ‘the eyes of a shop assistant’; ‘a car on display in the main court’; ‘Pepsi cans’; ‘the metallic bars protecting a jewellery shop after it is closed’; or even ‘the mood of overtaxed shoppers’. 

If you impose parameters on people’s thinking, you can enjoy greater rewards. Twitter, with its 140-character limit, was initially criticised for being too restrictive. But look at how successful it’s been. The limitation focuses thinking. Strict parameters can greatly enhance our thinking. 

Here is how you can benefit from this approach when brainstorming strategic ideas: Impose one of the following parameters and see how much more innovative the thinking becomes:

 Remove one key thing, such as funding, or important people. Ask what could be done under such circumstances.

 Impose crazy time limits: what’s the best we could do under those circumstances?

 Imagine a scenario in which all your current tools - your ‘delivery mechanisms’ - are removed, yet you still have to provide the same essential service to your clients. You can acquire new tools and you can go about it in new ways, but you may not go about it the way you did before. How would you do it?

The third suggestion helps to reveal threats. If you can think of different ways of providing your service, surely someone else can too. This may be your opportunity to beat them to it. 

Remember that you don’t actually have to apply any of these constraints in the real world. This exercise simply allows you to benefit from the thought process created by the experiment. The point is to initiate a state of ‘what-if’ thinking. ‘What if’ is a powerful starting-point for real-world innovation, the kind of real-world innovation that allows you to own your industry.