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What innovators can learn from the first Thanksgiving

(Kathy Willens/Associated Press)

In thinking about the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth Colony nearly 400 years ago, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the number of constraints and hardships this brave band of pilgrims faced and then ultimately overcame. Rather than focusing on what they didn’t have, the settlers gave thanks for what they did have and used their creativity and innovation to assemble a bounteous Thanksgiving feast that has since become an American tradition.

That lesson is an important one for today’s innovators. Constraints — whether it is in the form of capital, liquidity, time or attention — can actually become the basis for innovation to flourish in places where you least expect it. In corporate America, there’s been a growing recognition of the power of constraints to focus time and resources ever since an influential book called The Goal introduced a “theory of constraints” back in 1984.

Thirty years later, these ideas are becoming increasingly mainstream. In one recent case study about Google, for example, Harvard Business Review’s management takeaway was that “even Google needs limits” in order to be a great innovator. In short, constraints at Google help to ensure that the appropriate resources and the attention of key decision makers are both focused on the right projects. Constraints help to focus the creativity of Google’s innovators and ensure that the right structures are in place to guide innovation. If constraints are good for innovation at Google, they might be good for innovation in other businesses.

That’s particularly true for the startup world, where founders routinely talk about the importance of bootstrapping their businesses and forgoing venture capital investment until their businesses have reached a certain maturity point. Too much capital, too soon, in fact, may actually work against you by forcing your business to search out new market opportunities when they don’t exist yet, or giving away too much equity in your business at too cheap a valuation. Most likely, this thinking was behind Snapchat’s recent decision to turn down a $3 billion deal from Facebook and go it alone.

There is, in fact, a growing cottage industry of startup coaches and entrepreneurial mentors who have devised their own rules for bootstrapping a startup and finding workarounds for the most common startup problems. They point out that venture capital financing, typically viewed as the Holy Grail for new startups, is not as important as you might think.

If you think of the original Plymouth Colony as a startup (which, in a way, it was), then the importance of constraints becomes more clear. The pilgrims’ first year in the New World, in which nearly half the colony at Plymouth perished, can be compared metaphorically to the first year of a startup suffering a fast burn rate, internal dissension and discussion of how to “pivot” the business in a new direction. There were limited resources at Plymouth, and the settlers made the best of it.

If the original Thanksgiving had been blessed with an abundance of capital and financial resources, things might have turned out differently. Imagine imported foods arriving from Europe rather than wild turkey, waterfowl and fish. The relative hardship of life in the New World forced these pilgrims to become creative in how to allocate resources for organizing a huge Thanksgiving feast as well as to become more open to adapting the survival tactics of the local Native Americans. The rest, as they say, is history.

So, as we gather with our friends and families this Thanksgiving and give thanks for the important things in our lives, it’s also worth thinking about how the things we don’t have in our lives — whether personal or professional — may actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Quite possibly, the potential for the greatest innovation occurs exactly at those moments when you are facing the greatest constraints.