Persistence is the Key to Overcome Constraints

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As noted in prior blogs, we often think of constraints as obstacles to solving problems; yet people committed to spurring creativity and innovation increasingly realize that constraints sharpen our focus on solving the constrained problems. David Burkus, in the Myth of Creativity, relates the history of an innovation that demonstrates it.

In 2001, Jock Brandis was doing humanitarian work in Mali and learned that peanuts are hard nuts to crack. For many of the village women, shelling peanuts was their source of food and income. The work was grueling – because the splintering shells often made their fingers bleed and the repetitive nature of the work left them likely to develop arthritis at an early age. He then committed to one of the women that he would get her a peanut sheller when he returned to the US.

Upon his return, he discovered two constraints: there were no small-scale shellers – only large-scale machinery used by commercial peanut farmers, because there wasn’t a market for them in the developed world. He committed to building one for the developing world at a price that subsistence farmers could afford. After considerable search, he discovered a Bulgarian design for a small-scale peanut sheller – but it was too expensive. He then replaced expensive components and developed the Malian Peanut sheller (now called the Universal Nut Sheller). He got its cost down from several hundred dollars to less than $50 – using material that are typically available or easy to import. Today, the machine is used by people in 17 countries.

But, the process of manufacturing it presents still another constraint. Its main component is concrete\, which is poured into fiberglass molds to harden; and these molds are hard to make in developing countries. Shipping them from the US, increases cost and time.

At that point, Brandis partnered with an engineering professor at Humbolt State University, Lonny Grafman, who was focused on solving Haiti’s problems with plastic waste pollution: landfills and beaches were overloaded with plastic trash bags. Grafman worked with his students to turn the waste into a replacement for the fiberglass molds. After several weeks, they reported that while they could melt the bags down to make molds, this high temperature process released toxic gases into the environment – and couldn’t figure out how to overcome this constraint. Unwilling to accept defeat, he asked the students to try again. The very next day (!) they found a solution that worked within the temperature constraint Students tried to overcome the constraint, and reported success – by slicing bags into thin plastic rings and weaving them together to make a fabric that could be shaped into a model using a simple hand iron, and release no toxic gases.

In sum, today thousands of people in developing countries are earning an income with shellers which are produced inexpensively and without releasing toxic gases and by removing plastic from our landfills, due to the consistent focus of creative energies on overcoming constraints. Embracing constraints, triggers people’s imaginative abilities and generates creativity. Are you helping youjr people embrace constraints and focus on them, enabling the creative juices to continue working long-enough to generate great solutions? If not, do so!

Know any other examples of how creativity overcomes constraints? Share them!