By Maya Sussman, director of product
Shiitake mushrooms, tortillas, and gouda cheese. Not a great start to a meal, but that’s what I had – as well as company on the way. A few hours later, I had shiitake enchiladas and happy guests. And a new appreciation for the creativity that can come with limits and deadlines.
It’s always satisfying to look at a well-stocked kitchen. When I’ve just gone grocery shopping I have everything I need to make my favorite go-to meals. They’re predictably tasty, relatively healthy, and don’t require much thought. But many of my favorite meals have emerged from a nearly empty fridge. And as Chopped shows, I’m not alone here. Creativity under constraints can produce delicious results.
Freedom of Limits
We often think of limits, or constraints, as holding us back. As director of product for a small organization, I’m constantly faced with constraints in my work — tight budgets, short timelines, limited capacity. I find myself wondering what we could accomplish if only we had unlimited financial resources, another six months, or a team double our size.
But research shows constraints like these actually stimulate creativity, leading to more innovative and impactful products and programs. With no limits it’s hard to think outside the box. We tend to go with the most straightforward and intuitive approach. Constraints, on the other hand, focus our attention. Constraints require us to generate new ideas based on what we have available.
One of my professors at the Stanford d.school used to go as far as introducing arbitrary constraints to fuel our brainstorming sessions. My team was once brainstorming solutions to support bilingual families with inter-generational language development. Just as we were running out of new ideas she walked by our wall of post-its to tell us that our solution now had to include a map. A map?! But that was just the constraint we needed! We started thinking about a whole new category of solutions that we would never have otherwise considered.
Equity as a Constraint
Many organizations face constraints similar to ours when it comes to budget caps, deadlines, and headcount. These are often dictated by external factors like customers, board members, or contracts. But at Ready4K we’ve chosen to impose an additional constraint on ourselves. A constraint on the design, development, and implementation of our products. Equity.
Every education product on the market will tell you they prioritize equity, so what makes this different?
Constraints, sometimes called “requirements,” influence our decisions from the very beginning of a project. If you knew you had a limited amount of money to spend on a project, you wouldn’t start spending right away. You wouldn’t just hope that your expenses would come out under your limit. Instead, you’d start by creating a budget and you’d track your expenses along the way. You would ensure you were getting the best outcome while staying within that limit.
When we decide to develop a new product or add a new feature to our platform, we don’t start building and hope that later on we figure out how to get our product into the hands of all families. Rather, we start by considering each of our ideas through an equity lens. Whose needs would this solution meet? Who might be left out and unable to access this feature? Will this approach disproportionately benefit individuals or groups who are already thriving in our current education system? Or will it give opportunities to those who have been traditionally underserved?
Optimize for Equity
These are the types of questions that initially led us to text messaging as a technology. And to our specific approach of sending bite-sized messages that are easy for all families to read, understand, and act on.
Feature-rich apps, engaging videos, and links to in-depth articles are all tempting ways to try to deepen families’ engagement. But no amount of targeted marketing or discounted licenses will remove barriers such as language, internet access, and time. Ironically, these “great features” prevent many families from accessing and using these types of resources.
So with equity as a constraint we’ve stuck with the technology that reaches 97% of US adults. We’ve prioritized enhancements like additional languages, in-text surveying, and tools for organizations to enroll all of their families at once. With each of these improvements, the equity constraint led to creative solutions that increase our ability to support all families. It improved service, regardless of home language, internet access, or economic means.
While constraints can feel like limitations, I’ve come to see them as a creative force in both my work and my cooking. Because it turns out that my shiitake mushroom enchiladas are now a family favorite.