Growing in the face of budget, time, and resource constraints has become a critical capability of our time. “Do more with less” has become the mantra for many of today’s businesses.
Having recently conducted a three-year study of people and businesses who have been more successful in the face of constraints, not less, here are four insights about what it takes to lead well in constrained times:
Too often when we’re told we have less to work with, we try to protest, dodge, or delay the inevitable until it’s right upon us. But accepting our resources for what they are and working hard to do the best with what we have is a good way to develop competitive advantage.
When Formula One motor racing’s ruling body told teams, in advance, about the 2014 rule change that would impose a 35% reduction on the amount of fuel a car could use in a race, some teams (such as Ferrari) protested, spending precious time resisting the change.
Mercedes, on the other hand, accepted it almost immediately and relocated their engine and race teams to the same location to work on the challenge (until then they had been based in two different countries). By the time the change came into force, Mercedes were the best prepared for it, with a breakthrough in turbocharger technology that gave them the fastest cars, and the world title.
Steering your team towards constraints sooner than rivals can be an important source of competitive advantage in the future.
It’s tempting, reasonable even, to reduce ambition in the face of constraints. But strong leaders understand that raising the level of ambition can create the impetus to abandon the tried and true of the past and discover new ways for the new world.
Leadership Public Schools, a Northern California charter school system, increased its ambition to graduate all of its students from high school despite chronic budget shortages and lack of student engagement. The staff felt that anything less than this commitment to all students was unacceptable, and the scale of this ambition, despite how daunting it seemed, energized them.
This brought about experimentation with novel, even radical ideas in the way these educators taught math and science, ultimately allowing students to advance two to three grade levels in a single school year.
The London 2012 Olympics and Paralympic Games didn’t have funding for the expensive dot-matrix crowd-control signage needed to direct park traffic during peak times. But Heather McGill, head of Spectator Experience, refused to accept the typical alternatives for crowd-control solutions used at previous games.
The stated ambition of London 2012 was to elevate the spectator experience to new highs, so McGill pushed for something better that would enhance the experience as well as control traffic. Her team used unexpected live music shows to slow departing crowds and siphon traffic away from pinch points, and they deployed the “gamesmakers” to enthusiastically point the way using oversized foam hands.
These ideas contributed to 86% of attendees voting the games the best live event they had ever attended. And it was the unwillingness to accept compromise in the face of constraint that pushed the team to create new and far more engaging ways of managing the crowd.
Although some of the people we met with through our study had the benefit of certain skills or personal experience, none claimed an inventiveness gene or God-given talent. In fact, they largely believed that the skills required for turning less into more could be acquired.
What matters is a shared belief in this idea as much as a method, and leadership has a strong role to play in creating that belief.
IKEA has a rich understanding of how well it has responded, historically, to adversity through the legend of founder Ingvar Kamprad. More recent lore is celebrated in its in-house magazine, IKEA Ideas. These stories, along with other strategies, feed the company’s need to constantly innovate around impossible price points.
And Unilever has created strong emotional attachment (and employee motivation) to the challenges of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan by stating it’s vital importance to both company and planet, celebrating any and all progress along the way.
If we are the stories we tell ourselves, we must start telling stories about our productive relationships with limitations to win in today’s world; and it’s a rare business that has no inspiration to draw upon. The trick is to elevate those stories and couple them to just enough method until entirely new habits of mind have been developed.
This article is an adapted excerpt from A Beautiful Constraint (Wiley, Jan. 2015), by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden.
—Adam Morgan is the author of Eating The Big Fish: How Challenger Brands Can Compete Against Brand Leaders, the international best seller that introduced the concept of challenger brands to the world of marketing. His ideas have been widely cited as a key influence by a new generation of successful entrepreneurs and business leaders around the world. He is founder of eatbigfish, a renowned marketing consultancy that works with clients to develop their own breakthrough strategies, from Helsinki to Hanoi.
—Mark Barden runs the West Coast business for eatbigfish in the U.S. Over his career he’s won the Platinum Award for direct response marketing, taken a dot com public, warmed up a crowd for Ellen De Generes, and played a Buddhist monk in a Kleenex commercial. His advice on how to create breakthrough thinking with outsize results is much sought after. He is a popular speaker, world-class facilitator, and occasional coach.