Innovation: What to Do When You Don’t Have Enough Resources

Innovation: What to Do When You Don't Have Enough Resources

Mike Armour

Recently I read a book by Jason Jennings entitled The Reinventors. The sub-title is How Extraordinary Companies Pursue Radical Continuous Change.

Even though Jennings writes for established companies who need to reinvent themselves, many of his observations are equally valid for startups. One section of the book with special relevance to startups is his discussion of innovation.

The Birthplace of Innovation

The greatest innovations, he points out, are often spawned in settings where companies are strapped for resources. Faced with a pressing challenge, but lacking the resources to tackle it in a conventional way, they have engaged their imagination and ingenuity to find a way to achieve what they need to do at less cost, with more efficiency, or in a shorter time-period.

He uses the example of a struggling airline that was going under financially. It operated four aircraft on a limited number of routes. It finally became apparent that they only way to resolve the company’s debt was to sell one of the planes.

Selling the airplane, however, created a dilemma. If the company could not make ends meet with four aircraft, how could it ever expect to succeed financially with only three?

Doing More with Less

The only solution, the CEO concluded, was to squeeze more flights per day from the existing aircraft. And the way to put more flights in the air was to shorten the turnaround time at the gate.

So the company set out to see how much they could reduce the turnaround time. This is the amount of time between the last passenger stepping off of an incoming flight and the first passenger being on-boarded for the departing flight. Their goal was to refuel the aircraft and have the cabin ready for boarding within ten minutes.

No one else in the industry thought that such a turnaround was even possible, much less practical. But for this fledgling airline, with so few resources available to improve its bottom line, there was seemingly no alternative.

Intriguingly, they not only pulled it off. They actually flew more daily routes with three aircraft than they had previously flown with four. And they immediately became profitable.

Thus was born Southwest Airlines. Without innovation built out of necessity, one of the largest airlines in the world might have perished early.

Abundance Can Be a Curse

You’re not trying to start an airline, of course. But if yours is a typical startup, you are all too familiar with having inadequate resources to do things the way that you would want. Faced with this stubborn reality, its easy to slip into discouragement and to see the road ahead as too steep and too difficult.

When you find yourself succumbing to this temptation, put on your "innovation" hat. Start looking at the resources which you do have available and begin envisioning innovative ways to achieve your goal with the resources at hand.

If you were flush with resources, you would have little or no motivation to think innovatively. That’s one reason that heavily-funded startups are usually among the earliest to fail. They are in a position to throw money rather than innovation at their challenges, until one day there is no more money to throw. From what I’ve observed, indeed, having an abundance of funding for a startup is often more of a curse than a blessing.

Working with What's Available

In terms of maintaining an innovative spirit, I've learned some valuable lessons from my friends in Ukraine. Over the past 15 years I’ve spent a great deal of time in that country, and I'll be back there again in the next six weeks. For several years I managed several employees in Ukraine and coordinated a wide range of humanitarian efforts.

Early on it struck me that I never heard Ukrainians complaining about the things that they could not do because their nation and their households were so poor. Instead, the Ukrainians as a people display an uncanny knack of analyzing a problem, looking around to see what resources they have at hand, and figuring out a way to overcome the problem with what’s available to them. Some of the solutions which I’ve seen them develop are ingenious.

The Ukrainians have developed this "we’ll find a way" attitude as a by-product of their history. In recent centuries they have enjoyed only brief moments on independence. They have been under the thumb of the Ottoman Empire, Lithuania, Poland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Soviet Union. And while Russia exploited them worst of all, their political and military masters have always snatched up their resources and left Ukraine as a whole in destitute condition.

For centuries, therefore, they’ve not had the privilege of dealing with challenges from a position of abundant resources. Necessity has forced them to be innovative. And this process has gone on for so long that it’s now engrained in the national spirit.

We can all take inspiration from their example. Wherever we lack resources, we also have all the more reason to innovate. Reality may force us to accept a shortage of resources. But nothing forces us to be short on innovation.

This article first appeared in Encore Entrepreneur inbox magazine on April 17, 2014.

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