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Three ways to thrive in restrictions

Adam Morgan and Mark Barden

Men stuck under a clock

Adam Morgan and Mark Barden explore the ways leaders make their organisation’s constraints beautiful

So let’s imagine you’re in a regulated and highly competitive industry. You have some influence over the regulator, but not enough power to persuade them to back down. They announce their intention to pass a law that mandates that in a couple of years’ time you will have to reduce use of your key resource by 35%, while simultaneously maintaining the same level of performance and customer experience that has come to characterise the consumer’s strong relationship with your industry.

What do you do? The constraint is so severe it appears almost impossible for anyone to deliver, certainly without compromising the customer experience. Surely your role as a leader is to fight the regulator, and at least get the implementation delayed. Or do you take a different view, that there is a different kind of leadership responsibility, one in which you accept the inevitability, and pose it as a challenge to your team – even look for the potential benefits in it? 

Your choice as a leader

Which kind of leader would you have been in this situation? That industry ‘regulator’ was, of course, Formula 1’s ruling body, who had told the race teams a few years earlier that in 2014 there would be a rule change imposing a 35% reduction on the amount of fuel a car could use in a race. Two of the key teams responded in entirely different ways to that challenge. Ferrari, on the one hand, protested, and spent their time resisting the constraint. And one can see why – few at the time could see how one could deliver such a dramatic reduction in fuel consumption while still delivering cars that would deliver the speed and excitement that would continue to thrill the 300 million global fans who tune in for each race. 

Mercedes, on the other hand, immediately leant into the constraint, and used the time Ferrari spent denying the constraint to work out how to approach it. Recognising that solving the challenge would require entirely new ways of thinking and working, they put their engine and race teams in the same room for the first time – 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.

The rule change, of course, has led to benefits for the team owners beyond better track cars. Formula 1 cars are now genuinely at the forefront to technical breakthroughs that can be used in a new generation of road-going vehicles as well, which at once benefits and the consumer and justifies the high cost of racing investment that glamour and image alone was finding it increasingly hard to do.

Leadership and constraints

One of the most fundamental challenges for any leader is how to change their organisation’s relationship with the constraints they face – whether those constraints are around resource, time, scale or talent. Constraints will be seen by most in the organisation as inherently limiting, a force of restriction and diminishment, and so central to the leader’s success will be the ability to change that organisational perspective: to make a constraint a stimulus to fresh thinking and new possibility, a force for better and more.

We’ve spent the last three years researching how leaders in wide variety of companies approach transforming apparent limitations into forces for growth. The findings and cases run through my new book ‘A Beautiful Constraint: how to transform your limitations into advantages, and why it’s everybody’s business’. Here are three qualities that characterise leaders who are good at making their organisation’s constraints beautiful:

  1. They steer their organisations towards constraints, not away from them
    Getting to the future first, and being in the best shape to meet its needs, sees leaders in organisations as diverse as Nike, IKEA and Google proactively imposing constraints on their teams and projects to stimulate better, fresher, bigger outcomes. Constraints are not simply business realities we need to be good as responding to; they are stimuli leaders need to become skilled at beneficially imposing
  2. They set a high level of ambition alongside the constraint
    It is natural for a team to reduce their ambition to fit the constraint. Strong leaders don’t allow that to happen – in fact they raise the level of ambition, and explicitly bracket it with that constraint. And it is from that tension that the real inventiveness comes.
  3. They encourage and enable their teams to challenge the organisation’s routines and assumptions
    These were leaders who were not only prepared to challenge their own assumptions, but actively asked for and supported others doing it in the organisation. Look at Mercedes, putting their two teams together in the same room for the first time: one will only deliver the high level of ambition that accompanies the constraint by changing the paths one has become dependent on. Even if they are so natural to us that we scarcely see them anymore.

It is striking how little this ability is discussed in leadership literature, when the reality is that how we respond to constraints, individually as well as organisationally, lies so much at the heart of what growth and progress will look like. And so at the heart of what it will mean to be an effective leader in the rapidly-changing business context that lies ahead.

‘A Beautiful Constraint: How to transform your limitations into advantages, and why it’s everyone’s business’ By Adam Morgan and Mark Barden is published by John Wiley, March 2015, £18.99, Hardback and e-book

Adam Morgan is the author of Eating The Big Fish: How Challenger Brands Can Compete Against Brand Leaders, the international bestseller 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 US. 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.

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