I had the opportunity to interview “A Beautiful Constraint” co-author Mark Barden in one of my recent podcasts. It was a terrific experience that produced an embarrassment of riches for anyone in the innovation business. To spread the love, I transcribed the highlights for you. Enjoy!
Mark, constraint isn’t anything new. In advertising, for example, 99 percent of clients place constraints on you to work within a certain budget or timeline. But you’ve figured out a methodology for harnessing constraints. Explain that to us.
You’re right, David Ogilvy’s classic “give me the freedom of a tight brief” is what you and I grew up with.
Pull the camera back, look at culture more broadly, and you start to see there are many people who work this way. What we felt was missing was a how-to manual. A way to break down situations where constraint inspires creativity, a methodology you could use to be consistently productive in the face of constraint—that’s what the book is about.
Are we creating more radical innovation now because the constraints are becoming more radical?
I suspect that every generation and every era has had its own version of this narrative. Change is crazy.
Our generation has created abundance, and scarcity. In between them, opportunities are rising. Tweet This Quote
Look at social media and the explosion of choices. Trying to manage all those different channels is causing chaos, time and bandwidth constraints. So opportunities are being simultaneously created. On the one hand, our culture has created abundance. On the other, it’s created scarcity. In this rich space between scarcity and abundance, the constraints, and opportunities, are rising up.
What’s the difference between really good constraint-based innovators and all the rest of us?
We got a great insight from Michael Bierut, the legendary Pentagram designer. We went to Michael and said, “We kind of have this idea there are three types of people – victims, neutralizers and transformers. Victims are people that don’t embrace constraints as creative levers. They say, ‘I was on track to do X, but now I’m facing this impossible constraint so I’ll reduce my ambition in some way.’ Then there’s the neutralizer who says ‘There’s probably a workaround. I’m going to meet my ambition, but I’m going to take this different route.’ Finally, there are the transformers, who embrace the opportunity and constraint and try to find its creative potentials, its creative fertility.”
Even great innovators go through the stages of victim and neutralizer, before they move to transformative thinking. Tweet This Quote
We thought Michael was most likely a transformer. He said, “Whoa, stop. Time out. When I’m facing an impossible constraint-laden brief, I start in the victim mindset, and it takes me a while to make that journey from victim to transformer.” It made us realize that even incredibly creative people embrace victim, neutralizer and transformer mentalities.
Your book contained countless examples of constraints leading to great work. Share.
There’s the story of the development of arguably the most famous game character of all time, Mario.
The constraints of 8-bit technology led to one of the greatest characters in gaming, Mario. Tweet This Quote
Back in the days of eight-bit technology it was hard to render a character in any detail. So, to demarcate where the arms started, they gave him crudely rendered overalls. They couldn’t render facial expressions, so they gave him this huge mustache. They couldn’t render hair very well, so they put this kind of floppy beret on him. Those became the defining characteristics of Mario.
How do you get past disabling constraints, the things that cripple you as opposed to enable you?
This is where we need the method. It begins with path dependency, a very simple idea. All of us as human beings or organizations have habits, assumptions and biases that have built success for us. They serve us really well. But at a point, they stop serving us.
To beat self-limiting beliefs that hinder innovation, you need to ask questions blending your greatest ambition and worst constraint. Tweet This Quote
When a constraint comes along and whacks you upside the head, path dependency can really hold us back. We need to examine self-limiting beliefs, examine processes that blind us from opportunities, and examine the deeply held assumptions of this business. You need to clear that stuff out of the way to make room for a fresh approach.
One of the ways we clear that out of the way is with a propelling question, that propels you off your existing path toward a new kind of solution. It couples your biggest ambition to your constraint.
Let me make that vivid for you if I can. Scott Keogh, the President of Audi in North America, gave us a great story. Audi, like many car manufacturers, wanted to buff up its image by winning at Le Mans. Audi’s constraint? They didn’t have superior engine technology. Their car was no faster than anyone else’s.
Audi used the power of constraint to win Le Mans—without going any faster. Tweet This Quote
How did they do it? By introducing turbo diesel technology. As Scott said, “There is no engine in the world that is fast enough to make up time lost by pitting,” and with fuel efficient turbo diesels, Audi pitted less often. They finished first, second and third on the podium in the first year they introduced that, and for a few years afterward until the world caught up.
This is one of the key ideas in the book and it’s a great thing for anybody to think about. What is your propelling question? How can you meet your ambitions by harnessing the power of constraint? It’s an incredible win-win, because you’re getting somewhere using the very stuff that you’ve been thinking has been holding you back.
Let’s switch gears. Comedy. Jerry Seinfeld creates a show about nothing and everyone thinks, “That is the most bizarre, awful concept ever” and it was fantastic. Precisely because he said, “We’ve got to shake things up and move comedy forward.”
(Co-author) Adam Morgan found this story. It was an in-depth profile of Jerry Seinfeld in New York magazine where he was described as a comedy athlete, a super-human comic, because he routinely denied himself all the usual material that most comics use, and he did it in order to better his craft.
Jerry Seinfeld is a super comic because he imposes constraints. Seinfeld doesn’t stoop to 20 minutes on Bush. Tweet This Quote
It was basically his version of a propelling question, forcing him to create comedy unlike anybody else’s. It was the discipline to say, “I’m not going for the easy laugh.”
He created something so unique as a consequence of imposing constraints on himself.
There are certain people and organizations that have gotten to that point of such great confidence in their own ability to find the transformative power of constraints that they actually seek them out and they impose them upon themselves. That’s true of big companies, and comedians and race-car mechanics too.
In your book, you talk about US schools accelerating learning using a very simple piece of technology.
It’s the story of Leadership Public Schools, a small charter school system here in the East Bay of California with kids from very underprivileged populations. These kids were entering high school so far behind, the Leadership team had to figure out how to accelerate them two to three grade levels per year in order to get them college ready. Big, specific ambitions.
Remember, many of these kids had given up on school. They’re not going to get these kids to stay after hours and they don’t have additional resources, so they had to fix it then and there. Fortunately someone had donated clickers they use at conferences. You may have been to a conference where…
Where you vote for things.
Correct. Louise Waters, Leadership’s head, said, “What is the opportunity in this?” She hired a part-time CTO and said, “Can you figure out how to use those clickers to engage the kids in real time? Let’s see what the aggregate answers of the classroom are toward this very simple question, yes or no, and let’s see if we can get them interested in improving the aggregate score.”
How do you take kids that have given up on school and propel them 3 grades forward in a year? By tapping constraints. Tweet This Quote
That worked. It was like they were all playing this big game. Then they evolved the system, using used iPads. They used these iPads as next-generation clickers, so the kids could give individual feedback and have the teacher monitor it.
The teacher could tell—in real time—that Joe didn’t understand this particular formula in algebra, so he could do a quick intervention for three or four minutes, get him back on track and then move over to the next person. It was highly customized, real-time feedback allowed by this simple, rudimentary gamification engine. They called it Exit Ticket. If you’re a schoolteacher and you’re looking for ways to improve and accelerate learning in your classroom, go to ExitTicket.org and find this thing. It’s phenomenally powerful and has been very successful.
There’s so much stuff in your book we could go through, but I selfishly want to direct my last question toward my passion—helping brands that don’t want to end up on the trash heap of history. I try to look for signs of companies and brands that didn’t see the future coming and that got wiped out or brands that were successful at looking at all the signs and indicators, saying, “This is coming. We’ve got to prepare for this.”
To me, the world of financial constraint and resource constraint is looming large. It’s even bigger than it was before. Do you have any advice that brands should consider going forward?
The fact so many Fortune 500 companies from the middle of last century are no longer on the Fortune 500 should be the place to start. The modern corporation needs to become a corporate athlete by creating a nimbleness and agility around constraints, imposing constraints proactively on their business.
You’ll find opportunities nobody else is even looking for, because most corporations will navigate around the constraints. They’re still in that victim and neutralizing mentality.
Put constraints at the heart of your business, and you’ll set yourself up for success into the future. Tweet This Quote
Put those constraints at the heart of your process. Ask some very simple but profound propelling questions of your business and begin the process of getting your teams to a point where they feel confident in embracing those constraints and finding the opportunities that exist in them.
If you’re able to do that, you’re going to be more able to respond to the inevitable constraints that are coming your way, and respond in the way of Unilever, Nike, IKEA. Big companies can become really good at this. Those that do, will create competitive advantage around their capability in the face of constraints.
It’s funny because one of my most popular talks now, and I give this to small companies and big companies, is all about bootstrap marketing. It’s something I learned from the tech world and how these guys basically with a napkin and a credit card are marketing their companies and doing a good job of it.
I think that’s something too that big companies could almost take on as a constraint. Say, “Imagine if we only had a napkin and a credit card. What would we do?”
Initially, people say, “I don’t even know how to get started,” but once you give them these simple tools and propelling questions, it’s enjoyable.
That’s a wonderful gift to give your people. It’s going to create business opportunities, but more importantly perhaps it going to create people that are engaged in their work and feel like they’re really capable.
Check out more interviews from Marc’s podcast series here. If you have questions about building a futureproof brand, ask Marc in the comments section below. His answer will either run here or in his monthly newsletter.