Innovation is creativity within constraint

  Photo credit:    Matthew Fang    on    Visualhunt    /    CC BY-NC-ND

Photo credit: Matthew Fang on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Episode 4 of the Dialogue Lab podcast features a conversation about reproductive justice, speaking race to power, collaboration across difference, and innovation in social movements.  

Click here to listen,or keep reading for 3 social impact lessons from this conversation with reproductive justice advocate, Sujatha Jesudason.

About Sujatha Jesudason

Sujatha is the founder and Executive Director of CoreAlign, which is building collaborations to ensure that all people have the resources, rights, and respect for their sexual and reproductive lives.

She also just started teaching innovation in social movements at the Milano School of Public Policy at the New School in New York.

In her own words:

“I think one of the challenges and gifts of leadership is that you fail on a big screen. You just can't keep this stuff to yourself. You can't hide away your failures.”

“In a sense, as somebody who has been a leader and is trying to do the best that I can, and in a sense, consistently failing, and things just not going the way I thought. I've both developed more compassion and spaciousness around things that actually fail. And was able to connect it to this conversation of "and what could we be doing differently."

“...I mean, resilience isn't doing the same thing over and over again. Resilience is bouncing back to our purpose and trying to do things differently, in order to achieve our purpose.”

3 Lessons from the Lab

Our conversation was wide-ranging, sharing Sujatha’s insights on how to build collaboration across differences and diversity, what it has meant reimagine reproductive justice in a way that is more inclusive, and how she learned (and what she had to overcome) to embrace failure as a natural part of leadership.

And here I unpack one of her key insights: That innovation is creativity within constraints.

>> LESSON 1: Reframe constraints as a springboard for innovation, rather than a limit on it. <<

Sujatha pointed out that we often think in black and white terms when it comes to constraints.

We either focus on what we can’t do, or we are dreaming of a time that is completely constraint-free. Then she told a story of what happened in CoreAlign’s early years when they first started bringing people together to develop a 30-year strategy for the reproductive justice movement.

She said:

“One of the mistakes we made was we actually said, "Start with a blank canvas. How would we do this? What kinds of things we imagine 30 years from now?" And one of the things that happened is that we were all completely immobilized. It just became too much. The canvas was too blank.

“...So thinking about constraints not as a limit on what we can do, but as a springboard of what could be possible, has been for me a critical shift in my ways of thinking and doing. And so everything becomes an interesting opportunity of what we can do, with these constraints.”

So as it turns out, constraints are useful things. Used well, they focus our minds, help us prioritize, and provide the framework within which we can create.

This is a concept that comes from “design thinking.” One image I find useful here is to think of innovation and creativity like a game of tennis.

You are player 1, and player 2 (let’s call her Maggie) is your primary constraint. You hit the ball into another court. If Maggie doesn’t show up, your ball never comes back to you. It just hits the ground, and eventually rolls to a stop on the ground.

Kind of sad, right?

But say Maggie does show up, and she hits the ball back. You respond by running to the ball and hitting it back to her. And she responds in kind. And you and Maggie create a nice rhythm together, and the game progresses.

This is a little different than how we usually see tennis. We usually see it as a competition, with a winner and a loser. But here, the object isn’t to defeat your constraints. Instead, it’s to move the game forward, to find your rhythm, and move your mission.

And here, you and Maggie are playing and collaborating, to advance the game together.

>> LESSON 2: Reclaiming our legacy of innovation <<

What do you think of, when you hear the word, “innovation?”

I think a lot of us imagine large tech firms, spending gobs of money to come up with the next Facebook or Snapchat. It doesn’t sound like something social justice groups have the resources to do.

And that’s what Sujatha was running into when she started talking about innovation. She said:

“One of our aha moments was reframing our understanding of innovation. All human beings throughout history have been innovative. That is what is required for us to survive and thrive.

“And particularly, some of the most innovative and creative people are people who have been the most marginalized and most oppressed. That it is on the margins, under the most constrained conditions, that some of the most interesting and creative stuff has happened. in part because that's what you need to survive....

“And so in terms of innovation, for me a big part for social justice groups and nonprofits, is actually reclaiming our legacy of innovation.

“Not thinking it's owned by the tech bros or the D-schools, or the people who've written the books about it. But to look ... at our lives in the present moment, and say, wait, this is innovative what I did, and this is innovative, what I did. And this is how we can innovate together.”

Here’s an exercise you might try:

1. Think back over your life. What were some of the constraints you had to negotiate? We’ve all had them.

Maybe you have a marginalized identity, like being a woman, or a person of color, or transgender. Maybe your family didn’t have a lot of money. Maybe you were the ignored middle sibling of a large family. Maybe you’ve dealt with depression, or illness. Or maybe you turned 40 and realized you don’t have as much energy as you used to.

2. What did you do to respond to that constraint? How did you (or your family) use the resources and mindset you had at the time to keep moving forward in your life?

3. And what is something valuable that you learned and experienced in life, that you wouldn’t have if that constraint hadn’t been there?  

>> LESSON 3: Build an innovation mindset <<

Innovation isn’t something you have to create, far off in the future, after a huge investment of cash. Innovation starts where you are right now.

Because it’s built into who we are as humans, to help us make the most of the resources we already have. This is how we’ve survived.

So you start by noticing how you’ve already been innovative, and notice how it has been a natural expression of who you are. Reclaim it for yourself.

Then, you might try experimenting with this daily reflection, asking yourself:

  • What constraints did I encounter today?

  • How might they be an opportunity to be creative, and innovate?

  • Which (if any) of these are opportunities I feel inspired to act on?

It’s like working a muscle. Questions like these can help you build your awareness of opportunities that hide in plain sight.

And it so often does start with something that seems mundane. On the podcast, Sujatha shared how she developed the class she’s teaching at the New School on innovation. It started with the realization that she had way more content to teach than she had hours with the students. So she remixed it all and created something streamlined, multi-dimensional, and much more engaging for her students.


So those are my takeaways from my interview with Sujatha Jesudason.

If you found any of this helpful and would like to learn more about how I help my clients build dialogue, collaborate and innovate for social impact, I'd love to hear from you.