A Beautiful Constraint

"We are the stories we tell ourselves, according to psychologist Timothy Wilson; if we believe constraints only limit us, then they will. But Wilson also notes our remarkable capacity to redirect our narrative by taking small steps in a new direction, which become self-sustaining when they pay off. Our hope is to provide those steps, and start to change the narrative, so we can all grow to make constraints beautiful."

- A Beautiful Constraint, page 5

Adam Morgan and Mark Barden understand the time and attention constraints their readers are under: Early in A Beautiful Constraint: How to Transform Your Limitations into Advantages, and Why It’s Everyone’s Business, they point out that the summaries at the ends of their chapters can “collectively be read in 21 minutes and 20 seconds.”

While helpful to know, reading the entire book ended up being well worth the eight or so hours it took because it transformed how I view the constraints I face every day.

What are constraints? According to the authors, they are “limitations that materially affect our ability to do something.”

Sound ominous? Maybe even ugly? Only if we allow constraints to sound that way.

The authors show how both individuals and organizations can view constraints less as obstacles and more as opportunities so beautiful we should even consider imposing them upon ourselves.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Make constraints beautiful by changing mindset, method and motivation

"Ten years from now, we would like to search Google for a definition of constraint and see it include this: a limitation or defining parameter, often the stimulus to find a better way of doing something."
- A Beautiful Constraint, page 11

To make a constraint beautiful, the authors outline the three areas where change needs to occur: mindset, method and motivation.

First, we must move from a victim to a transformer mindset. A victim mindset uses flawed strategies like avoidance (“we can’t”) and reduction (“why would we want to”). Conversely, a transformer mindset counters with “this constraint could catalyze arrival at a better solution” or “what constraints should we impose on ourselves to stimulate new possibilities.” A mindset intent on breaking path dependence to “the way things are done” must also occur if we hope to make constraints beautiful.

To change our method, the authors show how to ask propelling questions that “bind a bold ambition to a significant constraint” with specificity, legitimacy and authority. We then answer those propelling questions by starting each sentence with “we can if…” and using overlooked resources to create abundance where everyone else sees scarcity.

Finally, the authors discuss how to activate those emotions that will change our motivation and desire to make every constraint beautiful. Specifically, they assert that “the science suggests we should spend time indulging in the fantasy of success and dwelling on the realities of what failure would feel like because the tension between them prompts us to make a plan and act on it more than positive thinking alone.”

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Say Can-If Instead of Can’t-Because

"People are used to putting up their hands to solve a problem they know how to solve; what is much harder, and more unusual, is putting up their hands to solve a problem they don’t know how to solve. And yet that is precisely what is required in constraint-driven problem solving. Without a positive construct to guide the team, the inability to have a ready answer to a difficult question kills the momentum and the flow of exploration."
- A Beautiful Constraint, page 80

The second of the authors’ three-step method for making constraints beautiful is to answer propelling questions with a deceptively simple expression: “We can if…”

The authors share five reasons why framing conversations in this way works so well:

  • It keeps the conversation on the right question
  • It keeps the oxygen of optimism continually in the process
  • It forces everyone involved in the conversation to take responsibility for finding answers, rather than identifying barriers
  • 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 is a method that maintains a mindset

They even provide a can-if map that shares possible phrases that would come after the initial “can if” statement—everything from “we can if we introduce a…” to “we can if we think of it as…”

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Impose Constraints on Yourself

"Nike, though one of the world’s most innovative companies, initially responded as a victim when forced by NGOs to examine its practices. Then one constraint after another prompted a better solution than before, and Nike began proactively seeking out constraints as stimulus for innovation. Nike now sees its capability to do this as a long-term competitive advantage."
- A Beautiful Constraint, page 193

I’m old enough to remember athletic shoes before Nike. They aren’t pleasant memories. In those days, both Phil Knight, Nike’s founder, and I experienced the same constraint: a decided lack of traction.

But that’s where our stories veer in different directions. My “can’t-because” mindset about this seemingly insurmountable constraint did not result in business success that could match the nearly $30 billion annual revenues Phil Knight’s company has enjoyed. And it’s all because Phil Knight watched his track coach pour molten rubber onto a waffle iron and thought “I can if.”

Morgan and Barden advance Nike’s story to the mid-1990s to a time when this same innovative company faced the huge constraint of becoming “the poster child for the poor conditions of workers in factories across Asia.”

Nike’s initial reaction of defensiveness was perhaps best seen in these lines from their 1997 Annual Report: “We are not here to eliminate poverty and famine or lead the war against violence and crime. Our critics say that the world is going to hell in a Nike sports bag. Then again, our critics, for the most part, aren’t athletes.”

Since then, they’ve so successfully changed their mindset from victim to transformer that they now impose sustainability constraints on themselves because it drives them to find solutions no one thought possible.

In other words, they’ve made their constraints beautiful—and so can we.

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Bill Stadick

ABOUT Bill Stadick

I studied poetry and English literature in college then debt-stumbled into advertising, a job where words actually mattered. A few decades into it now, I recently left a communications firm in Wisconsin to start Page 17, Inc...
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