Why Setting Limits Unlocks Unlimited Innovation


In 1988, when Chrysler president Bob Lutz tasked design chief Tom Gale to create a version of the Ford Cobra, he gave the production team a charter consisting of these three parameters:

  • A $50 million budget
  • 36 months to get it to production (in time for the ’92 Detroit show)
  • “Be ethical, moral, and don’t get [me] in trouble.”

The result was the Dodge Viper – an iconic, muscular sports car that provided an enormous power boost to the Chrysler brand.  It was Bob Lutz’s powerful statement to the world, as well as thousands of demoralized employees, that Chrysler was here to stay – and so was he.

The Power of a Laser-Focused Charter

The Dodge Viper story highlights one of the hallmarks of great garage projects — projects like Burt Rutan’s Spaceship One and Kelly Johnson’s SR-71 — namely, a charter that creates laser-like focus.  In the case of Spaceship One, the goal was a high altitude rocket that could facilitate hands-free re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.  For SR-71, Johnson’s team needed to create a near space altitude aircraft with an almost invisible radar signature that was capable of flying at Mach 3.5.

Each team was challenged with making a huge step forward in a short time, and with limited resources. And in each case, the team leaders were able to facilitate huge breakthroughs by setting tight parameters on the project outcomes.

At first blush, it might seem counterintuitive to limit your team’s hunting grounds. The time spent on open-ended exploration may well produce incredibly valuable ideas – think of what’s emerged from Google’s 20% time policy.

But focusing on the outcome allows for huge breakthroughs, because with completely open-ended exploration, the potential directions are infinite. It’s difficult to predict what might come out of that exploration, when innovations might emerge, and if they’ll be useful. By placing parameters on the solution, it allows your team to waste less time chasing ineffective possibilities.

Benefits of Running a Tight Ship

  • Mission-built Devices. The results of a tight charter is that choices perfectly reflect mission. The Viper team famously used a short list that excluded roll-up windows, air conditioning and cup holders to stay focused on their goal – a modern American street-legal race car in the style of the Shelby Cobra.
  • Focused Collaboration. The phrase “Necessity is the mother of invention,” comes to mind here. Some of the most creative solutions occur when experts from many fields come together with a single, focused goal. Tightly-scoped problems keep the creative energy of the group focused on the big issues. Frequent, full-scale models, prototypes and proof-of-concept tests allow problems to be uncovered early and solved cross-functionally.
  • Zero Scope-creep. Scope creep is the term designers use to describe the addition of “phantom” features and augmented benefits that frequently occur in larger, less-defined programs.  An individual or group of individuals innocently adds something that from their viewpoint ‘improves’ the function – typically while adding complexity and expense.

Tight operating parameters keep the design focused and simple, eliminating many potential areas for operator error or system failure.  For example, the rocket safety system for Spaceship One doesn’t involve any sensors, electronics or required visual inspections.  Instead, the rocket itself is wrapped in and supported by simple metal wire.  If there is any exhaust leakage, it burns through the wire and cuts off fuel instantly, containing the problem without any user input at all.

When and How to Focus Your Charter

The most obvious opportunity to focus a charter is when circumstances call for a significant leap forward that the existing processes and systems cannot supply.  By creating a charter with a tight focus, you can spur an extremely concentrated effort from the best and brightest to make the step.

In the next post we’ll consider the next key accelerant that ‘garage’ teams use – proximity.  I’d love to hear about your experiences with “garage” environments for breakthrough projects.  Please send me an email or Tweet me.

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