In this series, I share some books that have inspired me recently using the ‘book review’ format as a springboard into a wider conversation about the world of work—and how to do it better.
A Beautiful Constraint by Adam Morgan & Mark Barden
I’ve been studying constraints and consulting in them for the last twenty years so was eager to see what I might learn from the authors, a pair of marketing consultants whose firm, Eat Big Fish, specialises in breakthrough strategies. My own background in industrial engineering and Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints gives me a very rich, but quite precise, understanding of what is meant by the oft-used ‘constraint’ word. I found the authors’ take on constraints to be highly relevant and reaffirmation that ‘the obstacle is the way’ to deep innovation.
The book articulates an impressively clear methodology for defining the constraint challenge then resourcefully planning for and implementing a solution. It all starts by adopting what they call the ‘transformer’ mindset rather than the ‘neutraliser’ mindset. This means befriending constraints and asking what they call a ‘propelling question’, which revolves around how to ‘achieve an ambitious vision without the resources usually thought of as being necessary to achieve it’. In their definition, a propelling question ‘has both a bold ambition and a significant constraint linked together’:
It is called a propelling question because the presence of those two elements together in the same question does not allow it to be answered in the way we have answered previous questions; it propels us off the path on which we have become dependent.
It’s our nature to stick with what has worked before, even when we know deep down, as leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith puts it, ‘what got us here won’t take us there’. Overcoming our adherence to a path is a key step. As a metaphor ‘break path dependence’ is stronger than the hackneyed ‘think outside the box’ as it requires you to consider the rails along which your thinking—and operations—currently run, then actively challenge yourself or your team by formulating a problem that can’t possibly be solved with today’s way of working.
‘Can if…’ not ‘can’t because…’
A powerful part of the beautiful constraint method is to develop ‘can-if’ thinking. In most difficult situations, people will respond to a significant challenge by saying ‘we can’t because…’ followed by all the obstacles that prevent any real action. Thinking of all the ways an innovative idea will never get off the ground sucks all the energy from the room. The beautiful constraint, however, flips the objection to ‘we can if…’, building momentum around creative solutions.
Chapter Four presents nine ‘can-ifs’ that lead to new thinking. Each is a ‘launch pad’ grouped around a concept such as mixing together two existing capacities, substituting X for Y, or using your customers to do the work. One example of the latter is Duolingo which is translating the web into numerous languages by assigning real webpages as homework examples for its language students. This can-if map is a great tool to use with large groups. The authors stress the need to ‘prime’ participants first to think in positive terms of overcoming challenges. They also reinforce the need to make any contributions using the ‘can if’ formulation, thus forcing ‘everyone involved in the conversation to take responsibility for finding answers, rather than identifying barriers’.
Language is important here. Even my own natural inclination is to say, ‘We could if…’, but ‘could if’ is mentally conditional (‘we could but it’s unlikely…’). ‘Can if’, however, represents a necessary condition. Each ‘can if’ statement ‘propels’ you or your participants closer to your ultimate goal. What’s more, I’ve found that gathering all your ‘can ifs’ under a goal tree you’ll be well on your way to designing a plan that leads to you achieving your organisation’s goal.
Are you building the right car?
While Chapter Four is easily worth the book’s price on its own, the text is also rich in implementation guides and stuffed with real-life stories that exemplify the author’s points. One memorable story concerns the 2006 Le Mans race and the Audi team. ‘The obvious question,’ they write, ‘for a team working to develop a new race car would have been:
“How do we build a faster car?” But Audi is a company that has at its heart being progressive, and so instead of asking his team the obvious question, the Chief Engineer asked a more progressive one: “How could we win Le Mans if our car could go no faster than anyone else’s?” A bold ambition with a significant constraint, plus a propelling question, took them to put diesel technology into their race cars for the first time. For the answer was fuel efficiency: they could win Le Mans with a car that wasn’t faster than any of the other cars, if it took fewer pit stops. And they were right: the R10 TDI placed first at Le Mans for the next three years.’
Naturally, this story appealed to the engineer in me. But this kind of thinking is exactly what I aim to apply to the challenges my clients present. We have to strip away our preconceptions to get to the heart of the problem. What’s the real goal? Is it to make a faster car? Or to win the race? How would that apply to your own situation?
Besides its content, another impressive aspect of the book is the authors’ obvious understanding of the importance of presentation when introducing new ideas. The excellent organisation of information—with clear nutshell intros, highlights, sidebars and chapter summaries—makes it easy not only to absorb the points but to retain and refer back to them later.
Make a virtue out of necessity
Morgan and Barden even make a virtue out of a production constraint of the book itself. In my memory, the book was ‘full colour’. Yet in returning to it to prepare this article, I found it used black and white photography throughout. What had created the impression of full colour? A simple, clever, colourful typographic jacket cover and the focused use of red detailing for key headers and tabs that provided easy way-finding. Along with the unusual square format, it all adds up to a book that feels energetic, fresh and modern. The whole presentation reminded me of the importance of great design and aesthetics in influencing people.
On a recent client engagement—inspired in part by A Beautiful Constraint—we went the extra mile by designing a visual and verbal framework that represented the critical success factors for a core function of our client’s organisation. The effort was praised by attendees at the team-leaders’ workshop and really helped cement the ideas they would need to convey to their teams. A few months later, we were happy to see the design concept had been appropriated by the CEO to highlight critical success factors for the organisation as a whole.
The kernel of what we do at Ensemble is to apply the Theory of Constraints to business challenges. Yet although the late Eli Goldratt broke new ground with his ‘business novels’, such as The Goal, the community that carries on his work often assumes everyone will just fall over themselves to understand its sometimes abstruse terminology. We are trying to make it more accessible ourselves with, for example, the 5-Step FOCUS. Morgan and Barden provide further inspiration for how to compellingly communicate new ideas.
One final quote from A Beautiful Constraint to leave you with:
‘If we don’t ask propelling questions of ourselves, someone is going to ask them of us, and by that time we will be behind the curve.’
As almost every industry faces disruption on a new and urgent scale, it’s worth forcing yourself to consider radical alternatives to the way you currently do things. I highly recommend A Beautiful Constraint to enrich your thinking about the obstacles you face. More often than not, constraints are not the problem, but the means through which we achieve our goals.
The change from standard thinking to Theory of Constraints (TOC) is both profound and exhilarating. To make it both fun and memorable, we use a business simulation we call The Right Stuff Workshop.
We’d love to run it with you. To learn more:
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