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Constructive constraints

Mar 24 2015 07:48

A Beautiful Constraint: How To Transform Your Limitations Into Advantages, and Why It's Everyone's Business, by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden

THE constraints referred to by Morgan and Barden are the limitations that affect a business’ ability to perform. I have not yet come across a business that is free of constraints of some sort: legislation that hampers, insufficient funding, inadequate staff expertise, and any number of others.

The title of this book is arresting: “A Beautiful Constraint”. Ponder that for a moment.

Dan Wieden of Wieden+Kennedy was given a “gift” by Phil Knight, founder of Nike. The gift was the constraint that came with the offer to take charge of Nike’s marketing. Knight did not want anything “that looked or felt or smelled like advertising”. As a competitive runner, he wanted a real relationship with the athletes who would use his product.

Wieden’s agency was not to run the same ad twice - “you wouldn't write the same letter to a friend two weeks in a row, so why would you show them the same ad?” There was to be no use of models in the adverts, none at all.

The “gift” had the effect of denying Wieden+Kennedy the ability to do what they knew as successful advertising. The result was one of the world’s most admired and successful communications campaigns.

Our instinctive response to constraints is to view them as restrictions. There is good reason to see some as necessary, beneficial, and to be embraced.

Todd Batty, creative director of video game giant Electronic Arts, notes that the absence of any constraints on video game designers does not provide an infinite range of possibilities, but the opposite: “a predictable sameness”.

In a very different field, comedian Jerry Seinfeld's approach is to deny himself the easy source of laughs, such as sex or swearing. Instead, his comedy is about the humdrum minutiae of life. This approach has earned him $30m a year.

Constraints can be grouped into “foundation, resource, time, and method”.

“Foundation” constraints are those that deny the business an essential for success. An example is the lack of a physical restaurant for a would-be restaurateur, which resulted in the growth of the food-cart industry.

A “Resource” constraint is the common lack of budget, people, and knowledge or expertise.

Hannah Jones, VP of corporate responsibility at Nike at the time, faced the almost impossible task of enforcing the use of protective facemasks to prevent breathing in glue fumes in their factories. She challenged the constraining assumption that glue fumes have to be toxic, and forced Nike designers to make a nontoxic glue. The result was not only a safer but also better performing product.

“Time” was a huge constraint on the ambitious “Sky City” building in Changsha, China. It was to be twice the height of the Empire State Building with 202 floors, making it the tallest skyscraper in the world. It was to be built in just 90 days! The constraint forced the pre-fabrication of the floors elsewhere, which were then assembled on-site.

The constraint of “Method” is commonly the result of trying to address today’s demands with yesterday’s methods. What was appropriate then, is not necessarily appropriate now, but previous success blinds one to what could create success tomorrow.

Rising to the Le Mans challenge

The constraint faced by the Audi R10 racing-car development team was how to win the Le Mans if their car could go no faster than anyone else’s. This methodological constraint resulted in using diesel technology in their racing cars for the first time. The answer was fuel efficiency without being able to go faster. Audi could win Le Mans with a car that was not faster, but needed fewer pit stops. The R10 TDI took first place at Le Mans for the next three years.

The authors do more than simply point out the creative value of a constraint – they offer some valuable techniques that are immediately useable. A key part of the solution is the “Propelling Question”. This type of question is not merely a difficult question such as how to double turnover in two years.

“How we frame the question is critical to making a constraint beautiful because it forces us to think and behave in a different way”, the authors explain. Propelling Questions must contain a “directional tension” that retains the “can” while looking for the “if”. Audi’s question was “How can we win the Le Mans if our car can go no faster than anyone else’s?”.

There is adequate research to suggest that when people are stressed, they are more likely to stick to addressing problems as they always have. Try addressing your constraint with this Propelling Question format.

The authors identify three generic reactions to constraints.

The first group consists of the “Victims” who lower their ambition when faced with a constraint. Since I cannot achieve what I desire because of the constraint, I will settle for less.

The second group consists of the “Neutralizers”, who refuse to lower the ambition but find an alternative way to deliver it. If I cannot double turnover in two years, I will exit this business and invest elsewhere.

The third group, the “Transformers”, find a way to use a constraint as an opportunity, and even heighten their ambition in the process.

Our habitual ways of responding to constraints prevent us from finding new ways to solve new problems. If the first step to correcting this is acknowledging the problem, the second is finding effective remedies.

Start with this book. It is practical, accessible and also entertaining,

Readability:   Light --+-- Serious

Insights:       High -+--- Low

Practical:       High -+--- Low

*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Strategy that Works. Views expressed are his own.

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