A Beautiful Constraint - By Adam Morgan & Mark Barden
February 22, 2017
This was such a great read! Do yourself a favor: buy the book and read it!
We live in a world of seemingly ever–increasing constraints, driven as much by an overabundance of choices and connections as by a scarcity of time and resources. How we respond to these constraints is one of the most important issues of our time, and will be a large determinant of our future progress as people, businesses and citizens of our planet. Underpinned by the latest research from social science, authors Adam Morgan & Mark Barden interviewed individuals and teams in disciplines as varied as marketing, supply chain, racecar engineering, design, agronomy and education, all of whom had turned apparent constraints into sources of possibility and advantage.
A Beautiful Constraint is a highly acclaimed and practical handbook about everyday inventiveness, designed for the constrained times in which we live - it will change the way you approach your challenges in both business and life. T
“The real world imposes constraints of many, many kinds...Freedom, in the real world, is not utter license to do as we please, it is much closer to Robert Frost’s famous formula - “moving easy in harness.” Constraints are always there. It’s a matter of how we move within them.” - Robert Bethune
If you don't have the time or the brain-space for the full book read, you can enjoy the below CliffNote version.
#changingperception #pathdependence #superstition
Introduction: The beauty in constraint, why it matters
The whole concept of a brand, for instance, is in effect a beautiful constraint It is the clarity on what that brand is not, as much as what it is, that allows a team to focus on finding fresh, relevant, and inventive ways to be true to what it stands for. When a brand stops respecting those limits and tries to become something it is not, it becomes weaker.
A constraint should be regarded as a stimulus for positive change. We can choose to use it as an impetus to explore something new and arrive at a breakthrough.
We are the stories we tell ourselves, according to psychologist Timothy Wilson: if we believe constraints only limit us, then they will.
In this book, a constraint is a limitation, imposed by outside circumstances or by ourselves, that materially affects our ability to do something. Constraints fall into four different groups: constraints of foundation (where we are limited in something that is usually seen as a foundational element for success); constraints of resource (where we are limited in an important resource, such as money or people); constraints of time (where we are limited in the amount of time we have to do something); and constraints of method (where we are limited by having to do something in a certain way).
In the business world, innovation seems to have become a little elitist, something for special departments in corporations. We are proposing inventiveness as a generalist rather than specialist capability, one brought into the activities of every one of us around constraints.
The capability to make constraints beautiful is increasingly important to all of us. We all live at the nexus of scarcity and abundance, and the capability to turn constraints into sources of opportunity will increasingly be a key definer of progress in our personal as well as in our business lives.
Victim, Neutralizer, & Transformer: Our starting relationship with constraints
Those who refuse to scale back ambition in the face of a constraint seem to be the ones most likely to find a way to make the constraint beautiful.
Even the most talented and experienced problem solvers go through these 3 stages when faced with what seems like an impossible brief/constraint. These stages are:
Victim: wanting to lower their ambition when faced with a constraint and/or bridling at the constraint and the person who put it there.
Neutralizer: refuses to lower the ambition, but wants to find a different way to deliver the ambition instead. Realizing, “wait a minute, there might be a way through this.”
Transformer: finds a way to use a constraint as an opportunity, possibly increasing their ambition along the way.
The importance of a possibility mindset: we can only be open to exploring ways to make a constraint transformative if we believe it is possible. At the outset, there needs to be an honest assessment of what the dominant narrative is - either your own, or that of your organization. It may be that some surfacing or reframing of hidden stories is needed to raise the initial level of self-belief. Knowing we tend toward a victim mindset can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some questions to better understand where we are and how to progress:
Have I, or my organization, done something like this in the past?
Do we celebrate people who do this? Do we value it?
Am I aware of others making these kinds of breakthroughs in areas that I can identify with - inside or outside my own organization?
Method/Process: the emphasis is on “start” rather than “complete”, because we will not know how to answer the brief yet and will have to iterate our way to solutions. Questions to answer include:
Do I understand how and why the usual ways of problem solving may not work here, and may hold us back?
Do I understand the best way to frame the challenge to be the most productive?
Do I understand how to best structure the search for solutions so we can maintain momentum in the face of such a difficult challenge.
Motivation: We can believe that it might be possible, and know how to start doing it, but if we aren’t driven to do it, then progress is unlikely. To get to the transformer stage, we will need to put our hands up to answer questions we don’t know how to answer, and persist on a journey that will be frustrating. We’ll need to be highly motivated to do so.
How do I feel about this challenge? Is it emotionally charged for me?
Is it important enough to me that I am prepared to push through the challenges that will come? Or does the organization see it as more important than I do?
How can I (or we) understand this challenge differently so we will want to push through all the barriers and obstacles that come our way?
Transformers and their Cultures: (Wieden + Kennedy) They encouraged each other to “walk in stupid every day.” acknowledging that each problem is beast solved from a place of humility, even ignorance of what is supposed to work. And a mantra of “fail harder” acknowledges that, while no one wants to fail, it is an expected part of the process when aiming for a breakthrough, and is not to be stigmatized or use as an excuse to quit.
There is a need to create urgency and action in the face of potentially debilitating constraints that might lead to procrastination.
Professional problem-solvers have a different relationship with constraints from the rest of us: they see them as inherently beneficial, because they provide a clear problem definition and focus the problem-solver’s energies; they set the boundaries to explore and push against.
Beak Path Dependence: The behaviors and practices that stop us from seeing opportunity in constraints
Today’s path is really yesterday’s path: the learned best practices, processes, values, data sources, and patterns that people pay attention to (and, as importantly, the processes, values, data sources, and patterns that people ignore). In a workplace culture that prizes efficiency and repeatability, these are the ones that endure, because they have worked before. They have become part of the identity of the company, and they can be almost invisible to the people working there. In other words, today’s approaches are in effect yesterday’s approaches, based on what was appropriate then, not necessarily now. They are not simply processes, but paths made up of self-reinforcing bundles of beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors, whose nature - and underlying rationale - may no longer be visible, and rarely questioned.
Lock-in: Research suggests that we’re more likely to stick to habits when stressed, because change requires more cognitive energy than we have in those moments.
What innovation is and isn’t understood to mean in an organization is often a reflection of path dependence.
Why do path dependence and lock-in matter, if it has driven past success? Path dependence can limit us in several ways when confronted with a new constraints:
Create lock-in to foundational assumptions that are no longer best for the future.
Create lock-in to criteria for success that are no longer relevant or the most important.
Create lock-in to organizational biases and priorities that are no longer appropriate.
Make us closed to what might be possible, when we need to be open; we confuse what is possible with “what is possible within the way we do things at the moment”
Make us bling to new kinds of information that don’t serve the efficiency of today’s path.
Lead us to follow approaches that are not going to be the best to solve this problem
The most significant and disabling constraints we face may not be the external ones, but the internal ones that determine how open-minded and flexible we are in our problem-solving ability. Some constraints are inherent to the challenge itself, some inherent in our approach.
What’s in a name: it will be helpful for us to identify our own path dependence and name the paths that are most and least useful going forward. Names make the invisible visible, and easier to discuss. Names make us aware, and help us remember. Names can start to change the way we see and behave. New names can stimulate new beginnings.
The power of stating a clear objective: to be considered on of the world’s most powerful brands and a leading innovator, on par with Nike and Apple; Visa mocked up the cover of a leading business magazine with the headline “Visa: Most Innovative Brand in the World.” to signal their intent. Since then, Visa has had many innovations and is moving closer to it’s goal.
The meaning of impossible: there may well be a natural tendency for someone to tell us that something is impossible, but, by and large, they don’t really mean that. What they mean is that it is impossible within the current paths on which they and the organization are dependent. If we want to open up a greater sense of what is possible we need to interrogate the paths until they confess their weaknesses.
The past is a powerful influencer of the future. If we let them, the decisions we made yesterday will determine what is possible tomorrow.
Ask Propelling Questions: How to frame the constraint to force breakthrough
Larry Page (Google’s co-founder and CEO) feels that the obsession with competition as the sole driver of innovation is off the mark. It’s hard to find actual examples of really amazing things that happened solely due to competition. Page has a different measure of success. He’s not interested in simply being “better than,” but in being “really amazing.” And with that as the goal, he sees his role as to look up from the daily contest and ask bigger questions, what he calls 10x questions: those requiring answers that have ten times the impact of previous solutions.
The effect of being asked to do the impossible; the nature of this kind of question means that it is impossible to answer by using an approach you have used before. It forces you off the path you have become depended on. You can’t answer it by looking at competitors, simply because no one is doing what’s being asked.
A propelling question is one that has both a bold ambition and a significant constraint linked together. If we want to make constraints beautiful, then it matters how we ask the questions that contain them. All of these questions harness the constraint to the ambition, ensuring that the constraint drives the solution. Some examples of propelling questions other groups have faced:
How do we win the race with a car that is no faster than anyone else’s? - Audi
How do we build a well-designed, durable table for five euros? - IKEA
How do we grow more and better quality barley using less water? - SAB
The ambition defines the impact we wish to make.
How do you frame a question differently to get to an alternative solution set?
If we don’t ask propelling questions of ourselves, someone is going to ask them of us, and by that time we’ll be behind the curve. (e.g. Block Buster)
The defining question for every CMO of every challenger brand: How do we build a stronger relationship with our target market than the market leader, without a communications budget? It is the tension in that question that forces a challenger brand team to rethink what’s possible and ways to do things differently.
Can-If: How to find solutions to constraint-driven problems
Optimism Decays: So the challenge is not simply, “How do we answer this question?” It is “How do we create the conversational climate that gives us the best possible chance to answer this question?” One that’s a little more helpful than a simple exhortation to be positive.
The importance of the flow in problem-solving & the power of “can-if”. That means keeping the conversation focused on movement toward possible solutions, unchecked by the presentation of potential problems. Instead of saying “We can’t because,” to an idea, focusing on staying “We can if…”. There are a number of reasons why “can-if” is so powerful in finding new solutions:
It keeps the conversation on the right question. It keeps the conversation about how something could be possible, rather than whether it would be possible.
It keeps the oxygen of optimism continually in the process. It keeps optimism and inquisitiveness alive at the same time.
It forces everyone involved in the conversation to take responsibility for finding answers, rather than identifying barriers. It doesn’t allow someone to identify an obstacles, without looking for a solution to that obstacle in the same sentence.
The story it tells us about ourselves is that we are people who look for solutions, rather than a group of people who find problems and obstacles. It holds and reinforces our thinking about ourselves as a culture of potential transformers, rather than impotent victims of insuperable circumstances.
It is a method that maintains a mindset. The failure to generate an answer with one line of enquiry leads to another can-if, another how.
“We can if we think of it as…”: this type of can-if involves thinking in a new way about something that has becomes very familiar, perhaps even taken for granted, and using this new frame to open up a new possibility or new way forward.
Sometimes language precedes behavior change.
“We can if we use other people to..”: This types of can-if involves trying to find answers to propelling questions using the skills, expertise, or willingness of other people. It challenges us to think creatively about who else w might ask for help with our constraint and why they would be willing to offer that help. (e.g. strategic partnerships and alliances)
“We can if we remove x to allow us to you…”: This can-if is about the enabling power of subtraction: how, by removing something, we allow ourselves to do something else instead. The creative and strategic notion that what we leave out is as important as what we leave in.
“We can if we access the knowledge of…”: This type of can-if involves finding and accessing new sources of insight and information to help us transform a constraint.
“We can if we introduce a…”: This type of can-if centers on introducing a new product or service dimension into the process, one that either transforms an element of the constraint into something positive, or offers a different source of appeal and engagement, one with the ability to change the criteria for choice in our favor.
“We can if we substitute x or y…”: This can-if is about substituting one apparently essential part of the product, process or experience with something entirely different.
“We can if we fund it by…” Often the issue is not finding a solution, but funding the solution. This type of can-if addresses that issue by assuming that there is always potential funding around us, it is just not yet in our possession.
“We can if we mix together..”This type of can-if involves mixing together things that haven’t been put together before to solve the constraint (such as an apparently irreconcilable trade-off).
“We can if we resource it by…”: This can-if is about being creative in how we identify and access resources that we don’t currently have access to, such as key channels of distribution, important products or services, or internal resources such as R&D.
Stepping back and global processing: A common practice of successful problem-solving involves taking a mental step back when the way to a goal is blocked, to look at the bigger picture again and to reassess. This helps us gain perspective, spot alternative approaches, and integrate seemingly unrelated pieces of information into solutions.
Creating Abundance: how to see and access resources we don’t have
“When you don’t have resources, you become resourceful.” - K.R. Sridhar, Bloom Energy
Creating Abundance: creatively looking for sources of resources, creatively reframing what we have to maximize our own sources of value to others, and creatively trading that value to allow us to access the abundance we need.
Interrogating our relationships with all our invested stakeholders is the first place to start the search for abundance.
Once we have identified the potential sources to access, we need to think afresh about our own assets, and reframe what we have to create new kinds of value with which we can trade.
We nearly always have more resources available to us than we initially think. The key is to stop thinking of resources only as those we control, and start thinking of them as those we can access.
We need to define an agenda that we share with that abundance owner which makes it in our mutual interest to combine resources.
Activation Emotions: How to fuel tenacity on the journey
Dan Wieden loves the power of anxiety, a less extreme form of fear, but one the finds addictive: “Crisis does a pretty good job of rewiring synapses...you can get addicted to anxiety because it is extremely helpful. If you can remain insecure, yet optimistic, you’ve got a pretty good chance of changing the world.”
Negative emotions can help drive persistence, commitment, and focus. Positive emotions help stimulate cognitive flexibility and the ability to see new kinds of connections. Image what we can do with both.
Emotions are at their most potent when they contrast. The science suggest we should spend time indulging in the fantasy of success and dwelling on the realities of what failure would feel like - the tension between them prompts us to make a plan and act on it more than positive thinking alone. (note, also ties to this concept around compelling storytelling)
The Fertile Zero: Learning from people who succeeded with next to nothing
It was a transformative mindset: everyone on the team now believe that it is not money, but efficiency that drives performance. The practice of micro-analysis and continual improvement has become part of the culture.
We have no money, so we have to think. When ambition is exceptionally greater than resources, that’s when real innovation happens.
6 Key Themes for Limited (or zero) Resources in Communication & Marketing:
Drama and Surprise: how lack of budget (and a naturally engage audience) forces us to look for greater impact when and where we do communicate.
Drama Commands Attention: If you can’t spend your way into being noticed, one of your strongest strategic options is to behave your way into being noticed. Drama, and specifically being more dramatic in some important regard than anyone else in your surroundings, is the most competitive way to focus attention on you.
Drama Engages Emotionally and Stimulates a Response: Drama engages us first through the emotions - it is the nature of drama to arouse an emotional response first, and a more rational response second.
Drama Provokes Conversation: Humans are drama junkies. The dramas of our days, big and small, and our reactions to them, make up much of our social conversation. Feed it.
Drama Creates a Memory and an Association: Drama’s brief intensity leaves a memory and an association. A brand - and anything of lasting impact - succeeds through building memories and associations. Surprise, like drama, is an efficient way to create greater impact with fewer resources. Substantive research has been done on the effect of surprise in marketing. Overall, it has the effect of emotional amplification: unexpected gains bring more pleasure than expected gains (e.g. when you order a smartphone lens from Photojojo, and they send you a small plastic dinosaur to give you something fun to take a picture of straight away).
Bring interesting on the inside: How, if we can’t afford to tell our story ourselves, it pushes us to build a brand that makes others want to talk about us on our behalf. When you can’t spend money to do the talking yourself, you have to spend your time, instead, making sure that what you produce is worth talking about. (Note: this also holds true for building a talk worthy business culture).
This highlights the importance of being true to the tribe you want to engage, and the intimate understanding and empathy that demands.
Root Tea: each variant is not a flavor, but a good story. People don’t tell each other about flavors, they tell each other stories
The point is not “earned versus shared” - the point is what you have to focus your energy on to make is shared: making the product interesting, the packaging interesting, the variant interesting, and the marketing interesting. And not just interesting - SO interesting that people want to share and talk about it with their friends.
Making a secondary medium your primary idea platform: How, if we can’t use or afford primary marketing media, we find the opportunity to elevate the role of secondary ones.
Alliance to scale: How, if we can’t afford communication scale on our own, it pushes us to develop new kinds of partnerships and build a new kind of brand neighborhood.
Using other people’s money, time and resources: How scarcity of the resources we need most forces us to access it in the resources of others.
Commercial innovation: How the need to secure those resources pushes us to create new kinds of value and currency in these key relationships.
Constraint- Driven Cultures: How big companies have learned to love constraints
This book is neither a paean to brilliant mavericks nor a buffet of hacks for cash strapped start-ups. It describes a way for everyone to progress, regardless of size, including large companies (this chapter covers examples from IKEA, NIke and Unilever who have all built beautiful constraints into the way they work).
“Making expensive things is easy,” the founder of IKEA would insistently tell his company, “Making affordable things that also work and last - that’s the real challenge.”
IKEA has institutionalized the practice of breaking path dependence by asking propelling questions of themselves. 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.”
The success factors for large companies to successfully create/use beautiful constraints appears to be:
Big ambition and strong intent: propelling questions that are specific, and have authority and legitimacy.
Start from the top and empower key people to drive it deep into the organization.
Make it central to the business - part of every executive’s agenda, not a siloed initiative.
Be consistent - boringly consistent: resist the temptation for a new year to demand a new objective.
Be willing to challenge and interrogate, every partnership, process, and assumption to discover what’s no longer relevant or legitimate.
Know that the benefits and virtuous circles will emerge; accept that you can’t predict what they will be in advance.
Be a storytelling culture: change the narrative about constraints, define success through simple stories, make success easy to pass on. Celebrate your transformers.
Scarcity and Abundance: Why this capability is so important to all of us today
Our solutions have a tendency to create new challenges for us to solve.
Constraints, and our ability to transform them, sit right at the intersection between scarcity and abundance.
Making Constraints Beautiful: How to use the ABC approach
Our strategic planning process for the year ahead could include a new question: What is the constraint we need to make beautiful? Creating focused energy from the team to solve one game-changing problem.
This chapter details an approach to bring constraint thinking into your work/team
Leadership & the Future of Constraints: The opportunity for progress.
We impose limits upon ourselves because they make us better; they elevate our art (from sonnets to haiku), enhance our piety (Ramadan and Lent), and improve our play (the basketball shot clock).
Whether or not they have the seniority or the title, leaders are those who know how to influence others, to get them to work hard and constructively toward a common goal.
A constraint without an ambition, and an ambition linked to the organization’s core purpose, is not going to have the legitimacy to motivate a genuine attempt to find strong solutions - it is not a propelling question.
Most important areas of focus for leaders:
They believe transformers are made, not born. While some of those we met clearly have advantages in skills, personality traits, or personal experience, none claim an inventiveness gene, and many were solving this kind of challenge for the first time. These leaders understood that even people who don’t think of themselves as capable of solving this kind of challenge can do it with the right mindset, strategies, and motivation, and it is their role to inspire and enable each of those three conditions for success.
They steered their organization toward constraints, not away from them. Getting to the future first, and in the best shape to meet its unreasonable needs, is the way to develop competitive advantage.
They set a high level of ambition, and legitimized that ambition. The leaders we met understood that raising the level of ambition alongside a constraint creates the impetus to abandon current paths, assumptions, and ways of thinking. This is when it becomes obvious that what may have worked before won’t work now. The clarity and boldness of the ambition energizes a team most powerfully when it is connected to the larger purpose and strategies of the organization.
They knew when to reject compromise of that ambition. It’s easy and understandable to settle in the face of a daunting constraint, especially when the team has worked hard to solve a problem. Though some level of compromise may be inevitable, however, these leaders knew how and when to push for more.
They got people to believe that it is possible. This is perhaps the most challenging of all. These leaders were able to convince a sometimes-skeptical team that, no matter how difficult the constraints ambition appeared to them, it was possible to find a good, even transformative solution, and they would find it.
They used tension and storytelling to generate a longer-term emotional commitment. These leaders were able to gain personal commitment from their team by wrapping the task in a narrative laced with light and dark emotion: vivid pictures of success and failure, creating the contract and richness of emotional connection that will fuel the creative tenacity it will take to push through.
They encouraged and enabled their teams to challenge the organization’s routines and assumptions. These leaders were not only prepared to break their own path dependence, but actively asked for, encouraged, and supported it in the organization. It takes rigor and discipline to constructively make visible to invisible patterns of an organization, calling for a new level of candor and persistence.
They new how to manage the transformation threshold. They know that there are times to raise the stakes and ask for more, and times to allow the organization to run efficiently and effectively. Few cultures can live at a high level of transformation all the time, nor would they want to. “Small i” inventiveness that can show up every day, without any disruption to the organization, should become routine practice so that when the major constraints appear, an organization will be ready.