Constraints get a bad rap. People see them as wholly negative: they impede progress and diminish potential. Entrepreneurs, in particular, seem locked in a perpetual grim struggle against scarce resources and abundant obstacles.
But constraints can also be fertile, enabling--even desirable. They can make people and businesses more than they were rather than less than they could be. Constraints force people to reframe problems and get creative. And from that fresh perspective and creativity emerge new opportunities: superior alternatives at which smooth, open roads would never have arrived.
Examples are everywhere:
- The clean, almost Zen look of the Google homepage is the result of a knowledge constraint. Co-founder Larry Page had limited HTML skills when the business was founded.
- Zappos’s enormously popular one-year return policy with free two-way shipping is the result of a market constraint. Customers are reluctant to buy shoes without trying them on.
- The NBA’s adrenalin-pumping run-and-gun game is the result of a time constraint. Players have 24 seconds to attempt to score before the shot clock runs out.
- Jerry Seinfeld’s remarkable career is the result of a content constraint. The comedian denies himself obvious sources of humor such as sex, politics, or just about anything else people are actually interested in.
Google and Zappos were responding to external constraints, which is the typical scenario for startups. But the NBA and Seinfeld created their own constraints. Can you imagine becoming so confident in your ability to transform your limitations into gold that you might impose them on yourself?
For this New Year we introduce a new column that takes a sunny point of view toward constraints. As advisors to the plucky challengers of the modern world, we’ve been wrestling with this subject for 16 years. Our research spans four continents and numerous industries. We will draw on it to explain the mindset, method, and motivation required to make constraints beautiful.
Among other things you will learn:
- How your existing behaviors and practices lead to “path dependence” that makes you blind to the opportunity in constraints
- How harnessing ambitions to constraints creates the kind of “propelling questions” that can drive your business along new paths to growth
- Why taking a “Can If” approach to answering these kinds of questions is a prerequisite to success, and how that works
- Why resourcefulness today is less about getting things done and more about being able to identify and access the abundant resources hidden all around us
The thing that binds you may just be the thing that liberates you to achieve greater success. We will prove that with just enough process, you can almost always find an upside in the down.
This article first appeared on inc.com.
Challenging ideas, something out of nothing, lover of progress. Mark Barden is a partner at eatbigfish and based in San Francisco.