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Barden (left) and Morgan.
Barden (left) and Morgan.

Adam Morgan & Mark Barden: Ask the propelling question

Why constraint can be a good thing, and how to frame business problems so they can enable new ways of thinking

Constraints have a bad rap," write Adam Morgan and Mark Barden in A Beautiful Constraint: How To Transform Your Limitations Into Advantages, And Why It’s Everyone’s Business. In an email interview, Morgan, founder of the UK-headquartered marketing consultancy eatbigfish, and Barden, the head of eatbigfish’s US business, talk about breaking old habits of thinking and taking the time to frame problems properly. Edited excerpts:

Could you explain with an example what it means for a business to do more with less?

Barden: BrewDog are a craft brewery that set up in Scotland in 2007, the year before the crash. They didn’t have an advertising budget, and couldn’t persuade the banks to lend them any money. Yet for the last few years they have not only been the fastest-growing food and drink brand in the UK, but are into an ambitious international expansion—including branded bars in Brazil, Italy and Finland, and a new brewery in America. How? They crowdsourced investment from fans through a programme they called “Equity for Punks", raising over £20 million ( 200 crore) and simultaneously strengthening the bonds between their drinkers and themselves. Having no communications budget meant they needed to use product news to create conversation and fame. So they produced a series of iconoclastic products that really pushed the boundaries of what people thought possible in beer, that got social and conventional media talking about them. And the two founders starred in a TV programme called Brew Dogs, touring craft breweries in the US, laying the foundations for their own launch a couple of years later. Their lack of finances and media budgets led them to investment and promotional strategies that were more powerful than those a well funded start-up with a big communications budget would have pursued. They did more with less. They made their constraint beautiful.

What types of constraints do businesses typically face?

Morgan: There are four kinds of constraints most of us have to face in a business context. The first is a constraint of foundation, where we lack something that convention would say is a key basic foundation for being able to operate in this business at all (your product is missing a “key" functionality, for instance). The second type is a constraint of resource, such as having next to no marketing budget. The third is a constraint of time, which we are all familiar with. And the last is a constraint of method, where you are required to do something in a certain way—this is often self-imposed. What all our research showed is that none of these types of constraints need to be genuine; external constraints rarely are. It is the constraints in an individual’s mind or an organization’s culture that tend to be what limits one.

One of the things not to do is take a “blue sky" approach, where you take the constraint out of the room and imagine how to be transformative without any constraints on you, only to bring the constraint back in the following day. I have sat in way too many client workshops like that. The energy comes from putting the constraint at the heart of the ambition right from the beginning. That’s what makes our minds productively uncomfortable, and pushes us to look for new kinds of answers.

What is path dependence? Your tips on how to beat it.

Barden: Path dependence describes how one becomes—consciously or unconsciously—locked into a certain way of answering questions, solving problems. You frame the question in the same way, use the same kind of data to understand the situation, talk to the same people to work through it, look in the same kinds of places to solve it. And, of course, this path dependence has a good track record: it got you promoted to where you are today. But as you look to explore new kinds of challenges, such as how to turn a constraint into an advantage, path dependence is often unhealthy because it prevents you from thinking about the problem in the most open and fertile way.

Many people we spoke to talked of “challenging every assumption", and that is clearly a very important part of breaking the underlying causes of path dependence. As important is recognizing the organizational biases that one’s company has which steer personal and team behaviour in a certain way (being sales-led, or product-focused, for example, or wanting to make everything we sell ourselves), and giving them a name, making them visible to everyone; this helps one discuss whether they need to be addressed in tackling this new challenge. And, finally, how one frames the challenge has a huge effect on path dependence. Those who are genuinely transformative tend to keep the constraint very much part of the way the problem is framed, and instead of reducing the ambition they are setting for themselves (a natural response to a constraint), actually keep that ambition high, if not increase it. When faced with problems, we all tend to rush quickly to look for answers; it is often much more important to stop and define the question in the right way.

You say in the book that inventiveness is at least as important as innovation. Could you give an example?

Morgan: Ikea are a very inventive company; it is in their founder’s nature, and they foster a culture of “doing more with less".

A few years ago they had a brilliant idea: they told their 120,000 co-workers worldwide that they would give all the profits of the company for one day to them. So, of course, the co-workers became very excited about this, and in every store put their minds and ingenuity to making sure they sold as much stock as they could on that one particular day. That, after all, was their constraint: they had just one day to do it in. It was a huge success in terms of sales, in motivating the staff—but also for Ikea. Their people came up with all sorts of clever ideas about display, and about how to shift slow-selling items that no one had ever volunteered before, and whose learnings were taken on long after the day was over.

Ikea are very innovative, and that is important to them. But this kind of inventiveness is just as important for commercial success.

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