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A Beautiful Constraint - Summarized

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

A Beautiful Constraint by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden attempts to provide one with the steps to redirect the narrative which frames constraints as negative, restrictive impositions. It aims to show how constraints can be fertile, enabling, and desirable; catalytic forces that, when leveraged, stimulate new possibilities.


The beauty of constraint is all around us:

  • Marital commitment to one person enables us to focus our energy on the individual relationship to develop a deeper level of intimacy and security.

  • The shot clock in professional basketball.

  • Twitter's 140-character limitation.

We sit at a nexus between an abundance of possibilities, and the reality of scarcities. This is seen in our professional and personal lives. We have enormous amounts of info at our fingertips, yet we feel short of time, energy and attention.

A world of too much data, too many choices, too many possibilities, and too little time is forcing us to decide what we value. - Ariana Huffington

Chapter 1 - Victim, Neutralizer, and Transformer

Three Stages:

  1. Victim: Lowers their ambition when faced with a constraint.

  2. Neutralizer: Refuses to lower the ambition, but finds a different way to deliver the ambition instead.

  3. Transformer: Finds a way to use a constraint as an opportunity, possibly even increasing their ambition along the way.

No one is locked into a single stage, rather we move between them. We need to assess our mindset, method, and motivation on a challenge-specific basis:

  • Mindset: Do I believe it is possible?

  • Method: Do I know how to start to do it?

  • Motivation: How much do I want to do it?

Tips for teams:

  • Get each team member to mark themselves as low, medium, or high for each of the questions above and work towards achieving high ratings on all 3 questions.

  • Use mantras like “Walk In Stupid Every Day” & “Fail Harder” to create a culture of belief.

  • Reinforce that failure is okay and that problems are solved from a place of humility.

  • Motivate by creating a sense of importance and urgency. Keep saying “what a tough project it is.”

  • Know when and how to “peak”. Permanently residing in a transformer state is unsustainable. Instead, cultivate a base-level “fitness” that allows you to dial up the intensity when needed.

Chapter 2 - Break Path Dependence

Language has a profound impact on our actions:

  • For example, consistently referring to a sub team as the Heart of House because they are the “heart” of your operation, leads to a heightened perception of their importance.

  • This leads to more frequent interaction, knowing who makes up the sub team, their names, their families, their birthdays, etc.

  • This leads one to improve their work experience.

  • This leads to the workers having a completely different relationship with their job.

Path dependence = persistence of features:

  • Today’s approach is yesterday’s approach.

  • Not simply processes, but paths made of self-reinforcing bundles of beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors which can be formalized and visible in a manual, or informal, invisible, and rarely questioned.

Organizations go through 4 phases of developing path dependence:

  1. Good Practice (then an event occurs, a success of some kind)

  2. Proven Practice

  3. Corporately Preferred Practice

  4. Locked-In

Repetition and habit are important features of a productive life...

  • Habits are efficient and save us from unnecessary mental processing.

  • Repetition provides confidence around clear expectations of behavior and a sense of identity around shared practices.

...but, when confronted with a constraint we are not used to dealing with, path dependence can limit us by:

  • Creating lock-in to criteria, foundational assumptions, and organizational biases and priorities no longer best for the future.

  • Blinding us to opportunity.

Start small:

  • Changing the foundation of how one operates can be intimidating. Instead, tackle one or two dated assumptions, then use that as a springboard to enact more and more change.

Two simple techniques to create an awareness of path dependency:

  1. Name our tendencies and biases (often can be done by looking at buzzwords used and articulating what they really mean)

  2. Surface and interrogate the constituent parts of path dependence. These can often fit into the following categories:

  • Beginning assumptions

  • Routines and processes

  • Expected sources of solutions

  • Associations and relationships

  • KPIs and measures of success

Chapter 3 - Ask Propelling Questions

Larry Page, Google co-founder and CEO, believes that a purely competitive mindset to be “better than” is inferior to asking “10X questions” which require answers with ten times the impact of previous solutions.

Incremental Q: How can we reduce car accidents?

10X Q: How can we prevent all traffic accidents that result from human error?

The 10X Q:

  • Clearly defines the size of the ambition.

  • Points to constraint in which the answer lies: remove driver from equation.

  • Has authority: being asked by the CEO.

  • Has legitimacy: 344,100 people killed on American roads due to driver error in 2009.

A propelling question is like a 10X question:

  • Has a bold ambition and significant constraint linked together.

  • “Propels” us off the path dependency requiring completely original, often multidisciplinary thinking.

Propelling Q: How do we win the race with a car that is no faster than anyone else’s?

  • The constraint (no faster than anyone else) drives the solution: fuel efficiency, and therefore taking fewer pit stops.

Both sides of propelling questions are critical to create tension through the paradoxical frame:

  • Ambition needs to be specific and our “highest hope” or something we haven’t been able to achieve.

  • Constraint needs to deny us something that would make the question easy to answer.

4 Types of Constraints:

  1. Foundation (Limited in something usually seen as a foundational element for success)

  2. Resource (Limited in an important resource, ex. money, people)

  3. Time (Limited in the amount of time we have to do something)

  4. Method (Limited by having to do something in a certain way)

To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time. - Leonard Bernstein

5 Types of Ambition:

  • Growth

  • Impact

  • Quality

  • Superiority

  • Experience

The future belongs to the “unreasonable challenger”:

  • An individual or a brand which imposes on themselves the constraint of having to satisfy two apparently contradictory poles at the same time, and finding a way to do so.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world, while the unreasonable man persists in adapting the world to himself… therefore all progress belongs to the unreasonable man. - George Bernard Shaw

Chapter 4 - Can-If

Sir Jonathan Ive, former Chief Design Officer of Apple Inc., notes that solving challenges which propelling questions make visible requires both a remarkable focus and being inquisitive and optimistic:

  • These qualities can be hard to sustain over testing periods of trial and error.

  • Optimism correlates strongly with resilience and openness. It can also lead to under preparation and be far more personal than collective.

When in teams, keep conversation focused on movement toward possible solutions, unchecked by presentation of potential problems. This is achieved with the...

Can-If Rule:

  • When a potential solution is presented...

  • Encourage team to start by saying “we can do this if…”

  • Rather than defaulting to saying "we can't do that because..."

Can-If is powerful because:

  • Keeps conversation on right question (how instead of if, something is possible)

  • Keeps optimism and inquisitiveness alive

  • Forces everyone at meeting to take responsibility for finding answers rather than barriers

The process is never likely to stop at the first can-if, often leads to a sequence of cascading challenges and potential solutions (can ifs).

Fail forward:

  • Invest in solving the problem, don’t invest in a particular solution.

  • Difficult challenges demand humility and the ability to draw inspiration from the initial failure.

Use the scale of the ambition as a filter:

  • Just because a solution can work doesn’t mean it will deliver the full answer.

Can-If Examples:

  • We can if we think of it as…

  • We can if we use other people to…

  • We can if we remove x to allow us to y…

  • We can if we access the knowledge of…

  • We can if we introduce a…

  • We can if we substitute x for y…

  • We can if we fund it by…

  • We can if we mix together…

  • We can if we resource it by…

Chapter 5 - Creating Abundance

Find value in what you have:

  • In improv theatre, the actors accept “offers” from the audience and one another in order to get the story going and keep it going.

When faced with constraints we must be resourceful, meaning:

  • We find and build tradable value around what we have.

  • See and access from others the abundance that they have and we need.

The way we tend to think about resources is a form of path dependence. We typically see available resources as:

  • Only what is given to us or directly under our control.

  • Depleted when taken away.

  • Increased when we have more.

Resourceful people see resources as what they can access:

  • What the rest of the company has.

  • What those in their network have.

  • What their neighborhood has.

  • What the big resource owners they have yet to meet may have that they can use.

How to create abundance:

  • See potential sources of resource around us.

- Invested Stakeholders (co-workers, member of board, investors, committed user groups)

- External Partners (strategic partners, broader group of users)

- Resource Owners

- Our competitions

  • Reframe how we think about our own resources to create new value we can exchange.

  • Understand how to share and trade our resources to get what we need.

  • Explore how and why we might join forces to multiply our resources.

Chapter 6 - Activating Emotions

Grit – the ability to maintain commitment to a goal despite obstacles, adversity or failure – is a better predictor of success than IQ.

It’s a particular kind of persistence we need (not just banging head against wall repeatedly). A stubborn adaptiveness, continually stepping back and finding a new way forward.

The key to this, is an increased level of emotional engagement and motivation to follow through. This can be achieved by:

  • Developing a deep empathy with the end user (hence design thinking's emphasis on it).

  • Simply liking your end user.

  • CEO of Africa’s First National Bank (FNB) says most important drivers of innovation are “fear, laziness, and greed”

  • Dan Wieden, advertising executive, believes in power of anxiety and crisis. Feels that insecurity + optimism is a combo that breeds success.

  • Spite, anger, dissatisfaction, and frustration are also effective motivators.

Negative emotions fuel persistence, commitment and focus. Positive emotions fuel cognitive flexibility and the ability to see new kinds of connections. The “sweet spot” for motivating people is in the tension between positivity and negativity.

3 approaches when considering how to reach a desired outcome:

  1. Indulging: creating a vivid mental picture of what the future looks like when you have achieved your goal (Reduces motivation through psychological reward for having done the thing itself).

  2. Dwelling: creating a picture of all that could go wrong along that journey (Reduces motivation because the thing becomes pointless).

  3. Contrasting: Actively flipping between the prior two creates a tension which stimulates change.

Mental contrasting is just the emotional preparation. Need to harness the tension and implement a concrete plan of action, while always keeping the tension high.

Weave an “emotional narrative”:

  • Think about why your propelling question is important to you?

  • Build on contrast, explore various articulations, think about how team members will feel, how you can create the tension.

*The summary above encapsulates what Morgan & Barden refer to as "The ABC Approach" to making constraints beautiful. The omitted chapters contain examples of the application of this approach.*


Morgan, A., & Barden, M. (2015). A beautiful constraint: How to turn your limitations into advantages, and why it's everyone's business. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.

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