Say, in the early 2000’s, you wanted to create a summary of all human knowledge in the form of an online encyclopedia. How would you do such a thing, especially when, in the English-speaking world, the most authoritative encyclopedia was the Encyclopedia Britannica?
Perhaps, if you were like many people, you would find another pastime and do something else. If you were Jimmy Swales and Larry Sanger, the founders of Wikipedia, you would take advantage of emerging open-source technology and increasing storage and computing power and marry this with the enthusiasm and insights of amateur contributors around the world, and create an online encyclopedia, Wikipedia.
You would work around obvious constraints you faced (limited budget and access to world class experts, to name just two). In doing so, you would open up the reality of a resource that has “…18 billion page views and nearly 500 million unique visitors a month…” (The New York Times, February 2014).
Do you see opportunity around you? Do you view the world as an endless set of possibilities to be explored, assessed and acted upon? Do you search for how to invert an apparent limitation, stand it on its head and then repurpose it as a positive endeavour?
Or, do you view the world as being limited by an endless set of constraints or ‘issues’? Do you subscribe to the view that by tackling these constraints in an orderly fashion, with the highest impact item dealt with first, that over time your system or process will be significantly improved?
In 1984 Eli Goldratt wrote The Goal, a ‘business novel’ intended to show the principles of the Theory of Constraints (TOC). Set in a production plant, Goldratt laid out a clear set of principles:
- Identify the system’s constraints.
- Decide how to exploit the system’s constraints.
- Subordinate everything else to the decisions in steps 1 and 2.
- Elevate the system’s constraints.
- If in the previous steps, a constraint has been broken, go back to step 1, but do not allow inertia to cause a further system constraint.
Goldratt’s book places constraints in the context of the overall goal (in a production environment, ‘make more money’) that is being attempted. Constraints are a natural part of any system and need to be planned for and dealt with.
In A Beautiful Constraint: How to Transform Your Limitations into Advantages and Why It’s Everyone’s Business, Adam Morgan and Mark Borden explore the notion of constraints as a force for positive action. They dare us to use constraints to challenge ourselves and find inspiration.
At the heart of their thinking lies the question: ‘Is this the Age of Scarcity or the Age of Abundance?’ Their answer, it seems, is that it depends on how you view constraints.
Where Goldratt takes a scientific view of constraints in a system, Morgan and Borden see constraints as a springboard for business, cultural and social action. They provide many examples to demonstrate their thinking and the book is constructed both as a philosophy of creativity and change and a roadmap for creating this change.
The central concepts of the A Beautiful Constraint are:
- The Victim, Neutralizer and Transformer mindsets that determine how we approach a constraint.
- Path dependence that prevents us from perceiving opportunities in constraints.
- Propelling questions that reframe constraints and force breakthrough thinking.
- ‘Can-if’ thinking that opens up the possibility of positive solutions.
- Creating abundance through accessing resources we don’t currently have.
- Activating emotions to fuel action.
Among the many steps and tools Morgan and Borden offer is the simple yet profound notion of the propelling question. As they define it, “a propelling question is one that has both a bold ambition and a significant constraint linked together”.
In the case of Wikipedia, the propelling question was probably something like: “How do we make all of human knowledge available to anyone, while we have a limited budget in a not-for-profit charity structure?”
The story of Wikipedia is still being written, a little (or a lot) more every day. However, the cornerstones of its success are very unlike those of Britannica.
- Instead of experts, use enthusiastic amateurs.
- Instead of a small number of staff editors, use motivated and diligent volunteers.
- Instead of limited editions of books or CDs, use the Internet on an open license platform.
- Instead of near perfect accuracy first time, constantly improve entries over time.
- Instead of charging, make it free.
Constraints are a state of mind, it seems. View them as limiting and you will be limited. View them as the starting point for a very different thinking process and the world can open up in unexpected ways.
Read A Beautiful Constraint and see what you can change.