May 18, 2015

A beautiful constraint

Posted by Fifth Ring

Businesses face an ever-increasing array of constraints. Whether it is the constraints of our available resources, capabilities, time, or everyone’s favourite – budgets. Regardless of one’s size or position in the market, constraints are something that we are all too familiar with and we are taught that constraints are bad, right? Well a Challenger brand may beg to differ.

In fact, we see a generation of Challengers in the world who would believe that the opposite is indeed true. Challengers who believe constraints can be a fertile and enabling source of creativity and even find them desirable. For the Challenger brand will always have ambitions that will radically outweigh the resources available to them (sound familiar?) 

Arguably, the energy sector, like many other industries, is operating in an age of simultaneous scarcity and abundance. On one hand, we have unprecedented access to insights of opportunity. Never before have we been so directly connected to customers’ lives. And the ever-changing digital landscape means we can access and share knowledge and ideas with our colleagues in an instant with one poorly-spelt, thumb-typed email. And we need to have access to all this opportunity due to the constraints that surround us. We are all under extreme pressure essentially to do significantly more, with less. Pressure to manage a number of growth opportunities available to us, with smaller teams, tighter timelines and leaner budgets.

So what can we learn from the Challenger brands that ‘make constraints beautiful’? Those who sit at the intersection of constraints and opportunity and choose to turn lemons into lemonade? The following thinking is taken from our new book ‘A Beautiful Constraint’, and we will talk about the mindset and behaviours Challengers adopt to find an opportunity that others don’t see. Of the 11 themes discussed in the book, I’m going to cover three here, namely, how to ‘ask propelling questions’; the power of ‘Can-If’ thinking and how to see resources you don’t have by ‘creating abundance’.

1. Asking propelling questions

How successful we are in answering the question ‘how does one see opportunity within constraint?’ depends on how successfully we frame the question between the two opposing dimensions. We call these ‘propelling questions’. That is a question that contains a bold ambition and a significant constraint. The existence of the two dimensions in the same question means that we are propelled to answer it in a very different way than we have answered the existing category question before it.

When Audi entered the Le Mans 24-hour race in 2006, the traditional question of the racing industry was how can we build a faster car? Faster car equals winning team, right? Well, the problem was that Audi was competing with teams with bigger budgets and a longer history in Le Mans who were also trying to build the fastest car. So Audi had to ask itself a different question. A propelling question that closely linked their ambition (to win the race) with their constraint (lack of resource to build a faster car). “How could we win Le Mans if our car could go no faster than anyone else’s?” This propelling question saw them enter the R10 TDI, a diesel fuel-powered car. For the answer to their propelling question was fuel efficiency. Regardless of your car’s top speed, it doesn’t move very fast when you’re stopped for fuel. Audi found a way to win Le Mans with a slower car by simply stopping for fuel significantly less often than their competitor. Audi went on to win three Le Mans for the next three consecutive years.

2. Can-If thinking

Propelling questions naturally force us to find solutions outside of our area of expertise and look for different sources of inspiration. But asking the question alone is of course not enough. We need to find the answer to the seemingly impossible question.

Challengers go about this by starting their sentences differently. How many times have you heard the phrase “we cannot do that because ...”, or “we need to be careful we don’t ...”. These tend to be answers that block opportunity. 

A beautiful constraint

A Challenger, however, tends to start their sentences with the phrase “We Can If ...”. It forces you to answer the propelling question by focusing your thinking on how things might be possible, not simply finding barriers or risks.

Colin Kelly, Director of Research & Development at Warburton’s, forces his team to answer questions with ‘We Can If’. For example, 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 substitute X for Y ... etc.

Can-If thinking makes us focus our answer on the propelling question. It forces individuals to find solutions, not simply identify barriers or risk. And it creates a mindset and culture of optimism, energy and productivity.

3. Creating abundance

The ‘rules’ in which categories tend to operate can sometimes blind us to opportunities and resources that are quite often under our noses. Challengers tend to look at resources very differently. Rather than view them as something that they ‘control’, they view them as something they can ‘access’.

IKEA is the master of creating abundance. As the story goes, IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad was strolling through a food market in China looking at the abundance of plucked chickens. Now, where I would be deciding what type of spicy noodle soup I would order for lunch, Kamprad was looking at something else. Or rather, the absence of something else. The feathers. What happened to all the plucked feathers? He then struck a deal with the farmers to sell their excess waste to him at a small cost for stuffing for his range of pillows and duvets. The farmers made money on their waste and IKEA had found a way to sell high quality, warm comforters at a fraction of the price of the high-end competition.

So I’ll leave you with three thoughts ...

... if you link your audacious ambition with your significant constraint, what propelling questions can you create for your business that will force you to look for different sources of inspiration?

Try banning the word ‘but’, or the phrase ‘we cannot because’ in your meetings and replace it with ‘we can if ...’ and see how that changes the way in which individuals focus their thinking.

Create two columns. Column A is all the resources you control, and column B is the resources you could potentially ‘access’. How are they different and what new opportunities does column B potentially represent?

You can read more about how Challengers turn constraints into opportunities in a new book by the founders of challenger brand thinking, Adam Morgan and Mark Barden, ‘A Beautiful Constraint’.

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