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Exploit constraints to innovate

By Peter Opondo | May 12th 2021
An interior view of the 2006 Audi A4.

In the run-up to the 2006 Le Mans race in France, car manufacturer Audi was grappling with how to make its vehicle more competitive. 

The natural question executives and engineers were asking themselves at Audi was: “How can we build a faster car?”

Then one engineer flipped the question around and asked, “How could we win Le Mans race if our car could go no faster than anyone else’s?"

Turns out that framing the question this way was what was needed for Audi to innovate and develop a competitive car, the R10 TDI. How did this happen?

The question forced the automotive engineers to question all their previous assumptions.

Win the race

They realized that for the car not to go faster than any other car but still win the race, it had to make fewer refueling stops. And, for this to happen the car had to manage fuel more efficiently. Solution? Audi opted, for the first time, to put diesel technology in the cars that were entered in the 2006 race. It was the innovation that made the T10 TDI go on to win the next three consecutive races.

This is an example of what has come to be known as a propelling question; a question that has a bold ambition and a significant constraint linked together. The presence of those two conflicting elements can’t allow the question to be answered the same way it has been answered before.

Are there opportunities for you to ask propelling questions in your organization or personal life?

How can you grow your brand awareness with no marketing budget? 

How can you improve productivity while reducing hours spent by employees at work? How can you increase farm yields while at the same time reducing water and fertilizer consumption? Or how can you earn more while doing less?

Propelling questions trigger people to think in new ways and therefore unlock innovation opportunities.


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