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“Beauty in Constraint”
“A constraint is a limitation that materially affects” your ability to act. Most people chafe at any boundary, even those they impose on themselves. Confinement feels “restrictive and adversely limiting.” But approached with a proper attitude, a limit can broaden your thinking and potential. For example, both worthy parenting and lean business improvement owe much to constraints. You may face time, technique or budget constraints. You may have to respond to a boundary you can’t control. Or, you may impose a limit on yourself to spur new ideas. Consider how shoe retailer Zappos deals with a primary limitation: its online customers can’t try shoes on to see if they fit. The firm’s success comes from its innovative solution: Zappos does not charge for shipping and accepts returns with no questions. Buyers can test shoes and send them back easily.
“Constraints…are liberators of new possibilities, and we need to have a completely new relationship with them.”
However, not every constraint has a beneficial resolution. Today’s human endeavors take place at the intersection of “scarcity and abundance.” Technology allows you to learn anything or to connect to anyone in the world, any time of the day or night. That’s abundance. Yet every business today, whatever its size, must cope with a scarcity of time, resources or opportunities. Faced with balancing ever-new challenges of different types, you – and everyone else in business – must put conscious constraints on your ambition.
“We sit at a nexus between an abundance of possibilities on one hand and the reality of scarcities on the other.”
The Stages of Dealing with a Constraint
When a constraint appears in your path, do you allow it to stop you? To “make the constraint beautiful,” respond, instead, by becoming more ambitious and finding ways to move forward despite limitations. The “tension” between the forcefulness of your drive and the force of the constraint fuels creative solutions. People respond to restrictions in three sequential “stages”:
“Personal motivation is crucial to the transformation process, and that can be sourced from the larger narrative of the organization, as well as our own makeup.”
- A “victim” reduces his or her ambitions and pulls back when constraints appear.
- A “neutralizer” maintains ambition and goes around the constraints.
- A “transformer” views a “constraint as an opportunity” and grows more ambitious.
Resource owners are “people or companies with whom we currently have little, if any, relationship, but who have an abundance of a particular kind of resource that we need.”
Learn to recognize which stage defines your current response to a barrier, and try to move forward by understanding why you are at that stage and what you can do to move past it. Be on the alert not to slip into a victim mind-set at the first appearance of a constraint. Asking why this is happening to you is a reflexive response, so ask, but then keep going. Deliberately identifying and leaving behind victimhood to become a transformer demands strength of mind, “method and motivation.” Accept that you can deal with the problem. Compare it to ways you’ve surmounted similar roadblocks in the past. Method means figuring out how to “frame the challenge” and deal with the constraint. Motivation means finding the willpower to face the constraint, a step that might demand breaking out of old patterns.
“The composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein remarked that ‘to achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.’”
“Break Path Dependence”
If you rely on established practices, you may suffer path dependence. Your “dominant path” is the proven problem-solving approach you’d generally follow to deal with obstacles. In the past, this course of action has produced positive results for you. Following the dominant path is a sound strategy for larger organizations, which must replicate their successes “at scale and speed.” Larger firms lack the time or energy to reinvent the wheel for each new situation.
“Scarcity and abundance are more accurately seen as an infinite loop, one side constantly feeding and stimulating the other.”
To cope with new constraints, you need to know your dominant path and think outside it. To change your habits, you first must recognize them. The limits most likely to paralyze you spring from your existing assumptions about yourself and from relying too much on your dominant path. Companies, teams and individuals all suffer from reflexive responses. Use self-examination to identify your automatic reactions and patterns. Then you can break free and think more flexibly.
“This desire to look for entirely new ways to arrive at answers is part of a cultural sense that ‘it is more fun when things are really hard to do’.”
“Ask Propelling Questions”
In 2006, when automaker Audi sought to win the legendary, 24-hour Le Mans road race, its engineers didn’t ask how to make their car faster than anyone else’s. They asked how they could win if their car wasn’t the fastest. Their radical solution was to design and build a high-performance diesel engine. The revolutionary Audi R10 TDI was no faster than its competition, but its diesel engine provided a significant boost in fuel economy and required fewer pit stops than its rivals. That margin led to victory.
“If we let them, the decisions we made yesterday will determine what is possible tomorrow.”
The way you frame questions makes the difference between success and failure. Ask questions that parallel your dominant path, but that still generate new solutions. IKEA did this when it offered a striking, sturdy table and kept the price down by having customers assemble it. Use the “Four Sources of Unreasonableness” to spur propelling questions:
“A world of too much data, too many choices, too many possibilities and too little time is forcing us to decide what we value.”
- “The unreasonable regulator” – You may feel that regulators impose unreasonable limits on commerce, such as limiting the use of fossil fuels. But the regulations drive efficiency and spur alternatives, such as the development of electric cars.
- “The unreasonable consumer” – People reject “trade-offs” when they are buying. They want what they want when they want it. Each commercial category must find ways to meet its consumers’ wishes. City Car Share, for example, rents automobiles by the hour.
- “The unreasonable customer” – Retailers are often very demanding with their suppliers. Walmart demands more innovative goods, lower prices, simpler transactions and higher standards from every supplier. To keep Walmart’s business, suppliers comply.
- “The unreasonable challenger” – In 2014, Airbnb rented out more rooms than Hilton Hotels. Why did Hilton miss this threat? If “legacy” organizations mistake their positions as unassailable, the market will teach them when they’re wrong.
“We need a particular kind of persistence – a creative tenacity, full of willing and adaptive experimentation.”
Don’t talk about whether a goal is possible, talk about how it “could be possible.” Don’t say you can’t do something. Say why you can do it, no matter how far-fetched the reason. This attitude inserts the “oxygen of optimism” into your outlook. It makes every person in the conversation search for answers, not obstacles. It helps people regard themselves as seeking resolutions, not problems. Can-if sequences follow specific, structured “types,” like these:
“We are not suggesting that all constraints have the potential to be beneficial.”
- “We can if we think of it as…”
- “We can if we use other people to…”
- “We can if we access the knowledge of…”
- “We can if we resource it by…”
“Inventiveness, and the small and big breakthroughs it generates, will be at least as important as innovation to the future of what we do and how we progress.”
Improvisational comedy depends on all of the performers maintaining an open mind and being willing to build on what the other players offer to move their shared scenes forward. Mutual acceptance of each other’s ideas builds abundance into the process. Recognizing the “tradable value” in what you give others and in what they give you is the essence of resourcefulness.
“Those who refused to scale back ambition in the face of constraint…seemed to be the ones most likely…to make the constraint beautiful.”
You block your resourcefulness when you find benefit only in matters that are under your “immediate control,” when you don’t purposefully draw on fresh resources, when you let limits define your situation and when you don’t recognize the valuable exchanges you can offer. To gain access to the value in another person’s resources, think creatively about the value of your own. Sidestep your dominant path and regard your contributions through the prism of the other person’s needs. Those who can help you may include your stakeholders, outside partners, competitors, and those who “have a lot of” what you need and who want what you’ve got to swap. Approach them with a “mutually beneficial hustle” that serves your mutual needs.
Joy and delight “fuel increased cognitive flexibility” by unleashing dopamine and noradrenaline, which speed the movement of cerebral data and form links among diffuse bits of knowledge. Being happy makes you feel safer and less oppressed, which frees your thinking. Rage and dread make you tighten up and work harder and longer. Try to balance contentment with the right amount of anxiety to nourish your flexibility and increase your desire to attain your goals. Use the “science of mental contrasting” to balance a situation’s positives and negatives. Compare “indulging,” which means fantasizing about what your life will be like when you reach your goal, and “dwelling,” which means visualizing all that can go wrong. The most productive motivational state toggles between those two poles to balance obstacles and rewards. This process prepares you to create a strategy to fulfill your “implementation intention.”
Making Something Out of Nothing
When the McLaren Formula One racing team lost its major sponsors due to the EU ban on promoting tobacco, it faced a huge budget shortfall. Team leader Ron Dennis recognized the opportunity to do more with less. He had his team look at every detail of its operation to find ways to become faster, leaner, more efficient and more aware of costs. McLaren employees – from garage floor-sweepers to superstar drivers – saw that money alone isn’t what makes a team great. Efficiency and dedication drive results. Dennis also realized that his team could no longer be passive about sponsorship. Instead of just painting the racecar to promote their sponsors, McLaren’s people wore sponsors’ “logos, hats and watches” for maximum visibility. With this enthusiasm, McLaren scored a major sponsorship deal with the giant phone company Vodafone.
In the “fertile zero,” you have fewer resources than you want or need, but the seeds of creativity can grow. This “Zero Constraint” can be inspirational. If you must ration your advertising, every statement must be powerful. If you can’t afford to boost yourself, “get others to talk about you for you.” If your main media outlet is too costly, maximize what you can get from a cheaper channel. Push your teams to find innovative solutions and create new partnerships; spur conversation about your product; and draw on “other people’s money, time and resources” to propel mutual goals. For instance, the citizenM “budget hotel with luxury aspirations” formed a partnership with Vitra, a Swiss furniture firm, to turn its hotel lobbies into furnishings showrooms at no cost.
Large organizations can make constraints work for them as effectively as individuals and small companies can. IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad preaches that building expensive products is simple, but building inexpensive products that endure is a difficult and worthy mission. He revels in asking “impossible questions.” For example, when he saw rows of featherless chickens hanging in a Beijing market, he wondered what use he could make of the feathers. He turned “a food waste product into the stuffing for more affordable duvets.”
Nike has always been a leader in sports shoes. But in the mid-1990s bad publicity about working conditions in its Asian factories – and its CEO’s initial defensive response – damaged its brand. When Nike discovered a constraint – that it could not monitor every factory to protect workers from toxic glue – it reinvented the glue. After Nike succeeded with this solution, the process of dealing with other constraints challenged and improved its business operations. For example, it reshaped its manufacturing process to cut the amount of waste materials left on the factory floor.
“Scarcity and Abundance”
Everyone must ask, “Is this the Age of Scarcity or the Age of Abundance?” Commonly seen as opposing forces, scarcity and abundance are, in fact, an “infinite loop,” fueling each other in an unending yin-yang spin. Scarcity means increased competition for dwindling material resources. Abundance means vast computing power, connectedness and the ongoing “reinvention of business.” An abundance of action can lead to a scarcity of time or concentration, and vice versa. If you don’t think deeply enough, your strategy and creativity will suffer. In business and in your personal life, discover where you have scarcity and abundance. Consider how they balance and nourish each other. Continued rebalancing is a constraint that can drive your inventiveness.