A Beautiful Constraint: A book review by Bob Morris

Beautiful ConstraintA Beautiful Constraint: How to Transform Your Limitations into Advantages, and Why it’s Everyone’s Business
Adam Morgan and Mark Barden
John Wiley & Sons (2015)

“Here is the central paradox of a constraint: it can be both a limitation and a liberation.” Pablo Picasso

As I began to read this immensely entertaining as well as informative book, I was also reminded of an observation by another icon of disruptive creativity, Igor Stravinsky: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.”

I agree with Adam Morgan and Mark Barden that a constraint is a limitation, “imposed by outside circumstances or by ourselves, that materially affects our ability to do something. Constraints fall into four different groups: constraints of foundation (where we are limited in something that is usually seen as a foundational element for success); constraints of resource (where we are limited in an important resource, such as money or people); constraints of time (where we are limited in the amount of time we have to do something); and constraints of method (where we are limited by having to do something in a certain way.” As with beauty, viewing a constraint as a limitation or as an inspiration is usually in the eye of the beholder.

Morgan and Barden view it as both. In fact, they think a constraint can be “beautiful” when “it is an opportunity, not a punitive restriction, and using it as a stimulus to see a new or better way of achieving” the given ambition, objective, goal, destination, etc.

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Morgan and Barden’s coverage:

o The learning journey: Five groups for whom constraint means more (Pages 8-11)
o Progressing through the stages of the journey (20-24)
o Transformers and their culture (26-28)
o Table 1: The strategies and in response to constraints (32)
o Today’s path is really yesterday’s path (37-38)
o How does one overcome path dependence? (47-52)
o The value of paradoxical frames (64)
o Starting to use propelling questions: the different families of constraint and ambition (65-68)
o The Four Sources of Unreasonableness (72)
o Failing Forward (84-86)
o The different types of can-if (87-97)
o Seeing potential sources of resource around us (106-109)
o The value of emotional engagement (126-127)
o When a strong emotion meets a propelling question (132-135)
o The power of positive and negative together (136-139)
o The zero constraint (149-156)
o Commercial innovation, and, The benefits of zero (163-166)
o From victim to transformer: Nike’s journey (177-182)
o Constraints and healthy cultures (191-192)
o Scarcity vs. Abundance: Examining the arguments (196-203)
o Why inventiveness is as important as innovation (209-213)
o Leadership and constraints (227-230)

I commend Morgan and Barden on their brilliant use of various reader-friendly devices that include a “This Chapter Focuses on…” section at the beginning and an end-of-chapter “Summary” (Chapters 1-11), strategic use of bold face to highlight key points, dozens of Figures and Tables, relevant quotations from a variety of sources, and bullet-point checklists. These and other devices will facilitate, indeed expedite frequent review of key material later. I also commend those, especially Helen Redstone, who gave this volume its superior production values. Bravo!

Long ago, Henry Ford suggested, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re probably right.” It is indeed true that one’s attitude can be a major factor when determining the success or failure of an initiative. However, Adam Morgan and Mark Barden offer a wealth of information, insights, and counsel that explain how and why almost anyone can transform limitations into advantages. In fact, more often than not, working within constraints — be they constraints of foundation, resource, time and/or method — increases the chances of a breakthrough achievement, whatever its nature and extent may be.

One final point worth sharing: Presumably Adam Morgan and Mark Barden agree with Tom and David Kelley, Chip and Dan Heath, Keith Sawyer, and Michael Ray as well as Picasso, Stravinsky, and countless others: if our objective is to think more creatively, more innovatively, then we must think differently about how we think. Most human limitations are self-imposed. (How many people have you known who are convinced that “the dog” ate their lives? They probably have more “crutches” than does the International Red Cross.) Think of this book as a passport to personal growth and professional development. Find a new path, chart a new course, and let your journey of discovery begin!

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