Adam Morgan founded the company eatbigfish, a firm that challenges the status quo and creates an environment of challenger thinking and behavior. In this episode, Adam discusses his book “A Beautiful Constraint,” and talks on how intrapreneurs can leverage their limits to come up with creative solutions. Mark has re-read Adam’s book three times, and every time, he is able to draw new conclusions from the book. It is a highly recommended read!
With me today is Adam Morgan, who is the author of a lovely book called A Beautiful Constraint: How to Transform Your Limitations Into Advantages And Why It’s Everyone’s Business. Welcome to the show, Adam.
Thank you very much. Actually, just note that I am, in fact, the co-author with Mark Barden of the book, who’s my San Francisco partner who wrote his West Coast perspective to it.
Great. I should have clarified. Thank you for that. You work with some of the largest, best resourced companies in the world, companies like Unilever and Nike and Toyota, and yet you write a book about constraints. This is kind of counterintuitive to me. Can you just explain how you landed on the overall topic, given the background of the kind of clients you work with?
Yeah. My background is actually in challengers and challenger brands of all sizes. I had very large players, where you could describe, wanting to get back to rediscovering that challenger DNA for a particular time in their life, or a particular challenge. Or, indeed, much smaller players, who genuinely were starting out as challengers and taking on big established players and big established categories.
I’d written a book about strategy a long time ago called Eating The Big Fish, which was about a kind of strategic approach, and then I’d written a book about culture, and I always wanted to write a third book about challenger innovation.
One of the things that struck me about challengers was, very often, they are very innovative and they have to innovate despite not having a fundamental of what would normally be regarded as a good innovation practice. They might not have an innovation department, for instance. They might not have an R&D department, they might be thin on insights, or indeed, the kinds of partnerships required to scale, and yet they become and continue to be some of the most creative forces in the business around. So, how is it that they manage to be innovative in the face of those constraints was the way that I started.
As we researched the book more, and we got some deeper into the interviews, we first of all extended beyond just business and strategy into agronomy, into education, into healthcare, into a wide variety of different fields that seemed to be really interesting and important for us as societies and as kind of citizens of the world. But, also increasingly thinking like parenting and how it affected us as individuals, because we wanted this book to be our, I suppose, a kind of a handbook for our children going out into a world where, actually, how you manage your constraints and how successful you are at managing your constraints will define not simply a progress, but happiness for us in our business lives, in our personal lives, and indeed, our systems of the planet.
I’m thrilled you mentioned that, because as I said in the pre-conversation, when I first read this, I thought this was a marketing, a branding book, given your heritage. Then I looked at it again, I thought, “This is the kind of book that if I was running a large project, a change project in an organization, I’d like to read about.” Then, I looked at it again. I thought, “This is kind of a personal development guide.” The context of that journey that you just outlined is bang on, and I think it’s fascinating because it is a multi-faceted book.
My question, at the heart of the hypothesis is that the constraints are not limitations, but are resources, if you’d like. Can you just explain the six steps and the sort of central thesis, or maybe the journey that you take people through on the book? Then, maybe we can dive into one or two of those to really get a sense of what that looks like in the marketplace in some of your clients and perhaps even in some parts of your life.
The starting point really is that constraints have a bad wrap. If I asked you to do word association around constraints, the things that would come up would be there are things that limit your ability to be what you would really like to be or what you could really be. Yet, within certain professions – engineers, software designers – for instance, constraints are seen as absolutely fundamental to problem solving, and indeed, you can’t really start solving a problem effectively unless you got those constraints as parameters around the problem.
More particularly, outside those particular professions, each of us, individually, in some sphere of our lives knows and understands that constraints are a good thing. It might be in the sport that we do, and it’s more fun because of the constraints. It might be in the Sudoku puzzles that we do, or the musical forms that we study our love of Bach, for instance. We will understand that. We just don’t translate that sense that constraint as stimulus to more. It’s a stimulus to more creativity and more possibility into the rest of our lives, and particularly into our business lives.
I was really intrigued about why that was, and so with Mark, we set out to kind of explore, “Well, there must be a body of human knowledge about how to transform constraint into possibilities. Why can’t we see if we can just identify what those are, and quite just enough of the process. Not a formula, but just enough of a process to help people deliberately move themselves and move other people on from one station.”
We started out with a hypothesis that actually, there were a few people that were really good at this, and we called these “transformers”, and there were some people who just didn’t think it was possible, and we called them “victims”, and there were some people in the middle who could kind of clueless that they come up with quick, but not long-term strategic solutions in the face of constraints.
When you say people, just to be clear, you’re talking about specific individuals or people’s approach to problems. Because I think one of the elements of this is that you can deliberately go from victim to neutralizer to transformer. Do you see certain types of people, if there are people in the public domain who are really good at this, or not?
Our initial thought was there are some people who are just naturally very good at this, and some people who naturally just don’t get it. So, if you look at professional, creative people, certain kinds of inventors, the Dysons of this world, they naturally see constraints as exciting and stimulating. There are others, to be honest, very often, politicians, actually, who don’t see them as exciting and stimulating, but see them as things to be managed and talked around and spun.
You could argue that, actually, we should change those people over. Actually, we should put Dyson in charge of most of our policies. Because, actually, in the UK, for instance, we don’t have the abundance of resource we’d like. Nevertheless, that’s not how politicians seem to work. Our engineers work where our politicians don’t seem to work.
Is that just to do with their personality, I guess, was the question we asked. Then, we had a really interesting in it that you take a hypothesis, but you’re working where the book lies. You take the hypothesis out on the road, and you start to test it with your interview, even we interviewed roughly 50 people for the book in a wide variety of fields, and one of them was a guy in New York called Michael Bierut, who’s like a rock-star designer for a very famous design company called Pentagram.
I was bouncing this idea that there are three different kinds of people often transforms as neutralizers and victims, and he said, “Well, look. My response to that is, and I’m somebody who solves problems all the time, and every day in my work, I’m solving problems for my clients, is that actually, I see all those three things in myself.” I always start off when a constraint is imposed on me and the challenge that I want to do, even though I’ve solved problems for a living and I’m really good at it, and I know I’m good at it. I always see myself as the victim.
My first reaction is, “Oh my god. How on Earth can they expect me to do this under these circumstances. That’s going to be almost impossible to do,” and I get very grumpy and I stomp around a bit. After a while, a couple of days, and my team have been staying clear of me at this point, after a while, as we’re starting, I go, “Hang on. Maybe there’s a way through this.” Then, we suddenly start to think about it in a different way and bring different perspectives, but you know the constraint brings you to a kind of transformed to a solution.
I said, “I think those are not three kinds of people. They are stages that people go through.” I think you’ll find that everybody starts at the victim stage, and you need to recognize when a constraint, you’re facing a constraint what’s imposed on you. That is a place you will naturally start. That doesn’t mean you can’t get out of it, but what you’ll find is people need help getting out of it because they don’t know how to do it, they won’t be sure it can be done, and perhaps they won’t yet have the motivation to do it in the right kind of way. Part of what any study, or any book, or any resource like this needs to give them is the belief it can be done, just enough tools to do it, and some way of framing the motivation to themselves and their teams that will make them want to do it in the right kind of way.
That then became the way that we outlined the book. The book moves through helping people understand, first of all, how to frame the problem in a way that makes the constraint integral to the solution, and a positive part of finding the solution. So, it couples the constraint with a very big ambition. By putting those two things together, creates a discomfort in the mind of the receiver, because we’re not used to having a big ambition and the constraints sitting side by side.
We’re used to, by and large, when we do brainstormings or all that just, the problem owner or the CEO, or the CMO, or the CFO, whoever it is, will say, “Let’s take all the constraints out of the room, and let’s just think about what we’d like to be and how we’d like to be, and then tomorrow, we can bring reality back into the room again.” What happens in that situation is you have a fantastically productive session, loads of ideas, and then this kind of bucket of ice water that’s poured on it the following morning, and those things die.
What you find from people who are really good at making constraints powerful and stimulating is the opposite of that. They say, “Actually, no. That’s got a constraint right in the middle of the room,” and couple it with this really steep ambition, and let’s just look at the tension between those two things and how that makes us step back and rethink the way we have been approaching problems up to now: the data reviews, the questions we’ve asked, the teams we work with, the silos we operate in, the partners we have or don’t have. It makes you reexamine a more global way your whole kind of problem solving approach, and that’s obviously where the solutions start to come.
That’s the first bit. The second bit of the book looks at, really, is a wonderful observation by a man called Colin Kelly, who is the chief technical officer at a bakery called Warburtons in the UK. Colin’s a fascinating bloke. He came out of the nuclear energy business, Heinz in Russia, threw into bread, and he’s so used to a wide variety of different technical problems in different kinds of business. He has this phrase, a simple technique that he taught me about that I became fascinated by.
He said, “When you’re trying to solve a really difficult problem that we don’t know can be solved,” he said, “I don’t allow anybody in the room, any of my team to start a sentence with the words ‘we can’t do that because’. I make them start the sentence ‘we can do that if’.” He said, “I find it very powerful,” and I was struck by this because it’s a chime with some other things that I have been hearing about how Jonathan Ive, for instance, talks about the need to keep optimism and inquisitiveness alive at the same time in a problem because all the evidence suggests that, actually, the degree of optimism that you feel has a big bearing on the persistence and the grit further down the line with which you drive it through in the face of the speed bumps that you’re going to have.
I was trying to think, “Okay, if you’re going to deliberately have a very difficult question with a constraint in the middle of it, how do you keep optimism alive?” Colin’s way of doing it about making us talk about we can do that if had a number of immediate benefits, right? One was it keeps optimism alive in conversations. Second is it makes all the energy of the conversation flow around where you need it to flow, which is how do we solve this as a problem rather than allowing it to divert into a second question, which is, is this a problem that can be solved? Which is not questioning what they have. Third, if you accept that as a culture, we are the stories that tell about ourselves. We tell about ourselves the story that “we can if”, it tells about ourselves is that we are a good group to find solutions to problems. A story that “we can’t because” tells about ourselves is we are a group that’s really good at finding reasons why things can’t happen.
So, for all those three reasons, I became really fascinated by that and talked about it with my co-author, Mark. We then went back to the 75 cases that we’ve gathered from the 50 interviews that we’ve done and said, “Well, can we see if there’s a kind of commonality, if there are different kinds of can-ifs that seem to really pop around the most common point?” We identified a group of kind of 9 or 10 that seemed to be the fulcrums, or their kind of turning points, for most of these organizations or teams, and identified a kind of can-if map, which is something that’s kind of a little downloadable added into the book. Some people kind of use it as a stimulus themselves as they could have gone forth.
We then started to have, I suppose, a way of thinking about how we move through these different stages from victim to transformer, how you frame the question can-if. The next question then came up, which is probably a sub setter of can-if, I suppose is all about an area which I know is kind of about abundance and scarcity, and how, particularly in the Western world, we live in a world that also I see as a post-abundance world. I’m not even looking at it’s kind of a macro resources kind of level, like water and energy, and that kind of stuff, but just within business, we tend to think we have got less time and less people than we used to have, and it’s harder to attract talent than it was, and people stay with us less time, and all those kinds of things. We tend to think of ourselves in something of the scarcity mindsets because we have less than we used to.
But, clearly, if you are an entrepreneur, that’s not how you see the world. You see your resources not as the “as much as you’ve been given” or the people that report into you, or anything like that. You see it as the money you can access, the network that you have and what you can get people to do for you if you can give them a reason to do it.
We became very interested in resourcefulness and what we’ve called “adjacent abundance”. How do you, in order to overcome this constraint, and some of those constraints might be about money or time or people. How do you actually access other people’s time, money, resources and get them to be willing to let that to flow to you to live your kind of bigger ambition or prize. There’s a whole section of that resourcefulness, and increasingly, I think — and it’s funny when you write a book because often when you write a book, you’re trying to find out what you think about a subject that you’re writing about.
Then you speak about it afterwards, and then you start to find out people’s reactions to what you thought was the key point very often isn’t the key point. A lot of these things that people are most interested in and this is the area of resourcefulness, and particularly resourcefulness in large organizations to your starting point, the best in which is how do we get people in our organizations to be more resourceful?
I was very struck by a quote from a Dean of Entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School who defined entrepreneurship as the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled. I really like that definition because a lot of us in a large organization define entrepreneurship as lots of things. “Oh, it’s about being self-starting and it’s about being kind of agile, and the ability to go and talk to people and get stuff done,” and he says, “Well, it isn’t any of those things. It’s actually just one very specific thing, which is the pursuit of resources, or the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources you control.”
So, it’s essentially resourcefulness, isn’t it?
Yeah, exactly. But, recognizing resourcefulness does not consist of the resources you’ve been given, but the resources you can access. I think when he thought about that and when he coined that phrase, that was very much about entrepreneurs in relatively small organizations. But, now if you look at as a definition for large organizations, it’s surely got to be a very exciting template for a capability that we can train and develop in our own companies. One of the stimuli for the book, for me, was I actually found myself, being in Switzerland, sitting in a meeting where the president of a large global organization with a large presence in Switzerland addressed his team and he said, “This year, we’re going to need to do more with less,” and I looked at the faces of the team in front of me listening to this, and I could tell that what they interpreted that as a meaning was, “We’re all going to have to work a bit later on Tuesday, Wednesday nights,” and they were already working until 9 or 10 o’clock at night, because he was giving no sense of what that actually meant.
I think in trying to unpack what resourcefulness means and how to bring that to life in a large organization and lead out to make constraints beautiful, that’s in a sense, part of the thing I’m trying to answer, which is there are too many corporate or CEO kind of easy go-to slogans like, “Let’s do more with less,” and not enough of the serious unpacking by leadership of what it actually means.
One final thought, I suppose, what he was about, then the emotional wrapping, the sixth of the things that we’re talking about, really, which is how do you create what we call “activating emotions” that make people, on the one hand, uncomfortable staying where they are and clinging to the paths that they’ve become dependent on and used to, and frankly that have got them promoted to where they are now, because all those paths that they’ve clung to and used so far to get to their solutions have been really good on their CV and have got them to this position and bought them that car, and that mortgage, and that life, but recognize that, actually, those are going to be yesterday’s solutions for tomorrow’s problems and how do you get them to move on.
So how do you create a combination of an emotion that’s going to excite you and positive on the one hand, gets them to want to move towards it, and also it’s sufficiently uncomfortable to move away from where they are in the moment, and how do you bundle a narrative around that.
Those six steps, they fall under three sort of meta-categories. One is mindset, which is the victim, neutralizer, transformer breaking this concept of path dependence, which we haven’t gone into, but we’ll make the book summary available so that people can dig into it. Then, you’ve got method, which is the actual questions, the transformative questions, the can-if maps, the abundance piece, and then the final piece, as you say, is the emotions, which I guess is creating the energy, the tension between the hell of not doing something and the heaven of doing something to actually take you through that to help you overcome the inevitable challenges of the journey, right?
Because, the emotion piece, I know it’s the last one, but that’s fascinating because very rarely do you hear that kind of construct of the negative and the positive in the corporate environment anyway. I’m curious. Which of these six steps, I guess, or levers, which ones have — do you feel, firstly, have the biggest impact, and which ones cause the most raised eyebrows or surprise when you’re talking to clients in boardrooms for the first time?
I think which had the biggest impact depends on whether one thinks — which of the kind of three primary reasons that people are having difficulty moving from the victim to transformer mindset in your company or organization or team. Is it that they don’t believe it can be done? In which case, certain of these things kick in, and if they don’t want to do it, then things like the activating emotion things become particularly important. Is it better than how to do it, then more of the tools kick in. I think that varies a bit as we go through.
But, you don’t pass go if you don’t get into the transformer mindset, and the rest of it is academic, essentially?
I think that’s right, yeah. You could bear in mind that you’ll never get all of your people to be permanently in that full transformer mindset, but it’s kind of a threshold of preparedness that you need to get your team to be in. That seems to be what characterizes a lot of these people most of the time.
I think the thing that people go to most easily is the idea of can-if. They find that a very fresh and easy way to think about flipping what isn’t usually a difficult and unconstructive conversation into constructive conversation. So, people seem to like and be energized by that. I think what people have, and of course, the recognition of, but the most difficulty in doing is your point about breaking path dependence. I think they realize that an organization has legacy habits, legacy biases. They themselves have ways of doing things, ways of asking questions, doing strat planning cycles, all that kind of stuff.
But, in a sense, because it’s become best practice and they’re running so hot and fast, that’s the hardest thing to break. So, that’s the area they have most difficulty in. I think the thing that people are most excited by is this notion of creating abundance and how we genuinely get to be more resourceful.
I don’t know if you’ve met or made an interview to Professor Lawrence Freedman who wrote the book on Strategy a couple of years ago where he looked at some magisterial assessment of strategy and developing a strategy all the way from chimpanzee colonies all the way through to world history and to contemporary politics and the newbie arts.
We haven’t had him on the show, no.
Well, he’s worth doing. One of the three key pillars of strategy that he talks about is alliance and coalition, and I’m really interested in alliance and coalition, partly because my background is in challengers. Partly because if you’re going to make constraints beautiful, you have to be really good at alliance and coalition. You’re not going to do things on your own. Partly because most of my clients actually see it in a very simplistic way still.
There is somebody in charge of strategic partnership who sits in block 5 and never really interacts with the rest of the organization. But, it’s their job to do that coalition builders within the organization are not completely consistent coalition builders or path builders broadly within the organization. Again, I think it’s like resourcefulness that this is the key set in the future. I think if it was an organization , look at what the capabilities we’ll need in the future.
One of the three most important elements is alliance and coalition and the ability to build alliances and coalitions, and I was interested in that particularly because clearly if you’re interested in challenges, which I am, that’s my expertise, those are the clients that I work with, not doing it on your own, but having the ability to scale impact by partnering with other people disproportionate to your own size is clearly a critical capability.
Equally because it’s a manifestation of resourcefulness, but for it to be a manifestation of resourcefulness in a large organization, it can’t be confined to the head of strategic partnerships, who sits on floor C in block 5 and never really integrates with the rest of the organization, except on a once a year basis. It has to be a capability that we all have, and it’s not to be confused with building consensus within the organization.
It’s about how do I take what this project is all about, what the purpose of the organization stands for, why it’s important, why it’s absolutely critical this thing happens, and how do I use this to enlist people outside the organization to help us deliver it? That’s a kind of resourcefulness and the skill base that I think will be right at the heart of every organization’s capability building program in the future.
It’s interesting. One of the reasons we call this show the Innovation Ecosystem is beyond the four walls of the organization, there is this ecosystem out there, and I think, to your point, the companies that are going to dominate in the future or prevail are the ones that can manage this ecosystem in a way that is far more sort of fluid and fungible than perhaps in the old days, their organization stops at the barriers of the four walls of their company, if you like.
I completely agree. I think that’s absolutely right. Interestingly, I’m not sure what your perspective on this is, I made a distinction in the book between innovation and inventiveness, I think our sense was that innovation has rightly been positioned as absolutely central to an organization’s health and vitality and growth, and at the same time, there’s been so much emphasis placed on innovation with a capital “I”, that it’s now, in some way, seen to be the province of very special people who are locked away in certain areas of the organization and leave it to them. We’ll deliver what they produce for us.
What we were interested in positing was actually alongside innovation and organization, there’s another kind of creativity which we called inventiveness, which is actually everybody can practice. It’s not the providence of specialized people, and maybe, actually, as a part of your Innovation Ecosystem, you’re effectively advancing the same thing from a different angle.
Actually, we need to be encouraging those kind of formal big “I” innovation and the smaller scale inventiveness, which is really characterized by the ability to make constraints beautiful, because each of those things, in their own way, is going to be fundamental to the future of the company, but neither of them on their own will be enough.
Often, I end up talking to heads of R&D and large organizations, but if you’re talking about intrapreneurship or you’re talking about collaboration, and mergers and acquisitions, and incubators and accelerators, it’s a far bigger piece. Then, obviously, building the culture of innovation or of inventiveness, or of resourcefulness is right at the heart of every leader’s sort of mandate. I think, yeah, I tend to agree with you. Everyone, ultimately, is responsible for this kind of work. If the organization is going to prevail, but also for them to extract a sense of purpose and a sense of value out of coming to work every day.
You mentioned earlier on you were writing this book partly with your children in mind. What are the big things that have changed for you, having gone through the journey of writing the book in terms of how you think, for instance? How do you, for instance, fast track yourself from victim to transformer? Are there things that you’re doing differently in your life and your professional life and in your personal life that have come about as a result of the book?
Yeah. Some of it. In the writing of the book, we had a particular constraint, which is that my co-author lives in San Francisco and I live in London. Initially, I thought it would be so much easier if we were in the same place. We’d be able to sit together and have a couple of glasses of wine and talk about it. I realized very quickly that, actually, what appeared to be the constraint of distance actually was a great boon. Because, if we were together, we’d just spend a lot of time talking about it, not a lot of time writing it.
We moved into a system where I wrote for 8 to 10 hours during the day. Because of the time difference, I could send it to him. He read it, he then wrote, he sent it back to me, I picked it up in the morning. We pursued a more kind of follow-the-sun approach to writing, which was really good at rapid iteration and making sure we wrote over each other’s stuff so the whole book had one voice rather than two different voices.
Then in launching the book, we said, “Okay, listen. We’ve got to kind of obey the thesis of the book. Let’s set ourselves a target. Let’s aim to sell 5,000 copies in the first two weeks with a marketing budget of 0. Let’s set ourselves that kind of target.” So, let’s give ourselves a constraint: no marketing budget. Big ambition at
5,000 copies. That will be enough to go and give us some momentum in the United States, and how to think about how we’re going to do that.
So, we said to ourselves, “Okay, well look. We can add advertising. We’ve got lots of friends in advertising agencies. Let’s ask them to throw parties for us.” Let’s say we’re going to do a two-week book launch tour, we’re going to 12 to 14 events in those two weeks, they’re all going to be free, we’d like to start in San Francisco. Let’s ring up a couple of our friends at agencies and say, “Throw a party for us. It’s January. This is going to be great for your client relationships,” and they said, “This has changed, Adam and Mark. We don’t have those big budgets anymore. We can’t afford to splash out in big parties in the middle of January. We just can’t do that. We got the fancy atrium, we got the client list. We just don’t want to spend the money on it.”
So, we thought, “Hmm, okay. Well, let’s just play a little can-if thing out a bit.” We can actually get them to throw the party for us if the most expensive thing is free, and the most expensive thing is booze. Great! Well, we’ve got booze clients. Let’s go to our booze clients and say, “I know. There’s a great chance for you to just lend us some booze and we’ll throw the party at the agency and it will be wonderful.” These clients go, “Well, we’re not just going to hand out free booze.” So, we had to reframe it for them. We had to say, “Well, actually. Don’t think of it as a freebie. Think of it as a great chance for you to take a launch of a new product and seed it within the Twitterarty of the foremost, influential creative cities in the United States,” and they did.
This wonderful vodka brand, Skyy, launched. They did a global launch of a new product line. They were kind enough and generous enough to give us a kind of a very theatrical bar. It was all about mixology, and they gave us a brand ambassador called Felix, who was a magnificent man with a wonderful eye for the ladies, and he came along to every single event, and it made it a much bigger, more interesting thing. We did 14 events in two weeks in four cities, all entirely free, ending with an evening hosted at Google in New York on the final Thursday, then we did something by Fast Company and Inc. on the Friday morning after that.
All of those things came because we asked the question in a completely different way, and that experience completely changed my perception of the abundance and scarcity of my business life, and indeed, my personal life, and it’s had a profound effect on me. So, I’ve really taken that through into how I think about framing problems and deliberately introducing constraints to make myself think more creatively about what’s available to me.
Fascinating, and the activating emotions of the last step, any example? Presumably, you’ve got some experiences of where you were wondering whether you were going to sell any books because something hadn’t worked. How did that manifest itself on the journey to 5,000 book sales?
You have a lot of low moments where you think, “This is going to be really embarrassing,” having told our friends at 14 different companies in the United States that we’re planning to do this. This might not work, so it forces you to overcommit, if you like, to the amount of energy and attention you put into it. Also, more generally, I think, within a company or organization, I think that you will recognize this within your own situation, which is I’d set out my stall as being around challenges and challenge brands in ’99. Actually, in ’99, the book, Eating Big Fish, at the time, was the one that popularized the whole concept to challenger brands, and maybe we talked about it before then.
The thing about having a company that bases itself around that is it’s very exciting and you get slightly paranoid. So, you’re operating between these two emotions. On the one hand, as the concept of challenger brands becomes bigger and bigger, you think, “This is great. The world is full of opportunity for us,” and you paint an image to your group and to your team about all the possibilities that are out there. On the other hand, you’re also worried it’s going to become just another business fad, and the whole challenger thing will be part of a conversation that happened in the mid-2000s, but is no longer relevant now.
So, what you do, it drives you to behave as a business and as a business owner, is to be constantly refreshing and renewing that conversation. At one level, the production of A Beautiful Constraint and the thinking in it was a desire to refresh and renew the importance of challenges in the world and give people a new way of thinking about what had become a very familiar conversation. In a sense, that tension between excitement and desire, and on the other hand, fear of imminent and catastrophic doom is really what drove me forward, and I’m sure, at some level, drives any entrepreneur like you forward as well.
Yes, because what you’re talking about is the Stockdale Paradox, right? Have you heard the Admiral Stockdale who was stuck in a prisoner of war camp for eight years? He looked at why do some people manage to survive that traumatic experience over many years, and the paradox, it’s basically around retaining faith that you’re going to prevail in the end, so be optimistic, but at the same time, confront the most brutal facts of the current reality, whatever they may be. The people who actually survived were able to hold that tension between the hell and the heaven, and that was the reason that, retrospectively, he thinks he survived and many of his colleagues didn’t.
It’s fascinating. I, certainly coming out of the corporate world and launching this, what started as a passion project, which is now developing into something quite significant and quite relevant, is a day doesn’t go by without riding that roller coaster, and that’s why I found this tool or your approach so fundamentally fascinating. I’m curious, for the entrepreneur sitting in a large organization wrestling with how to advance a project, how to get resources, how to help, for instance, their team become more inventive or entrepreneurial. What kind of advice would you give, and what tools, for instance, could you make available or would you suggest they grab to actually really start making a meaningful step forward, but recognizing that it would just be the first step. Where would they start?
For me, a lot of it starts with how we frame the problem and how we frame the question. I think most of us have become so tuned by the pressures of business and the pressures of work to move straight to finding solutions that we don’t spend enough time thinking about what the question should be. In kind of exploring the book, it came very clear that, actually, one of the fundamental things that drives resourcefulness, and indeed, successful entrepreneurialism, is how that question is framed, because it forces you then to push out of the things that you and the organization have been doing historically, and finding new ways of doing them, and new resources to do them with.
This is where the notion of a propelling question comes in, really, and I’m calling it a propelling question because it’s framed in such a way that both of you, the intrapreneur, and indeed, the organization, as a whole, is unable to answer that question simply by doing the things you’ve been doing to answer your last four or five questions.
A propelling question, essentially, is a very big ambition, a stretch ambition, and a significant constraint put together in the same question. So, how can we build a well-designed, durable table that we can make and sell
for 6 euros, for instance, in the case of IKEA. How can we make a well-designed table that costs twice the price of the disposable coffee cup you’re going to put on top of it? Or, in the case of Audi, how can we make an engine for the new S8 that is faster than the previous engine, but at the same time, is more fuel efficient because the consumer won’t buy it unless it’s faster and the regulator wont let us produce it unless it’s more fuel efficient.
These kinds of questions make us very uncomfortable, and productively uncomfortable because we can’t answer them by just answering, following the process as we used for the past four or five questions. From the point of view of resourcefulness, a lot of these questions are to do with, “How can I achieve this big ambition when I don’t have a marketing budget, or when I don’t have an innovation department, or when I only have half the sales resource as everybody else.”
That leads you as long as that question has got genuine authority, it’s being asked by somebody who demands an answer and the organization has to come up with an answer for. But, as long as it has legitimacy, people understand why that person is answering it, and there’s a reason for it, and specificity, that’s to say it’s not just a general question about how we can do more with less. It’s a very specific question about how we can achieve this target with this little resource.
It forces you to look beyond the resources you’ve been given and the people you’ve been given because the question is a mandate. I have to answer it, but I have to look outside of what I’ve got, and that leads you to look at adjacent abundance. It leads you to say, “What’s the partnerships I’ve got? What’s the net worth I’ve got? What’s the resources I’ve got?” But, it’s within the organization, and indeed more broadly within our partners, and then outside our partners, but people who can be motivated to join our purpose and be excited by our purpose and want to allow their resources to flow to us to deliver this bigger purpose, as this purpose is bigger than both of us. That’s where it starts to get exciting and motivating, and there’s been a lot of conversation about purpose and why purpose is motivating and valuable in an organization.
But, it’s not enough conversation I think about why it’s not to be valued with an organization, but why it actually allows you to attract, almost like a magnet, the resources from around you and other interested parties who would want to give to a purpose that was bigger than an individual company. They themselves were valuable. I found that valuable as well. I do think that’s been one of the things that hasn’t been talked about enough with that.
There is art and a science to putting this question together, and it requires quite a lot of work to focus on the ambition, but also on the constraint to ensure that it’s sufficiently specific. Any live examples that you can just take us through just to give the intrapreneur, again, who might be listening, who might be feeling under-resourced, surrounded by disempowering questions versus compelling questions? Any example from some client work that you’ve done just to show what they went through and what value was unlocked by the propelling nature of the question, but also by the ability to attract resources around this question, around this purpose?
I think there was a lovely story that was told when we did the launch by the marketing director of Virgin America at launch, and Virgin America was obviously a domestic airline in the States, and was trying to reintroduce what they called “glamor” back into American domestic air travel, which had been improved somewhat by the introduction of new players like JetBlue, but still wasn’t quite at anything like Transatlantic level of pleasure.
They spent a lot of time, Virgin America, getting the mood lighting right on the airline, and they discovered that, actually, this kind of wonderful purple glow of mood lighting as you’ve got on the plane communicated a sense of both calm, but also this kind of sense of glamor and being a little bit more hip and cool and make you feel better about yourself. But, they spent so much money creating that experience that the marketing director didn’t really have the marketing budget to compete against the very, very large amounts of money that people like Southwest were about to spend on it.
Her challenge was, “I know this is a trigger. I know if I can show people this visual of the purple mood lighting, this is a kind of a trigger to trial, I just don’t have the marketing budget to really do lots of advertising to portray that.” So, she had to effectively say, “How can I get other people to give me their resources that will make the media and my consumers do this messaging for me, show this picture for me?”
So, they sat down and they looked at what we got. What have we got. We have a kind of a plane that’s got effectively, an aisle down the middle that’s sort of like a catwalk down the middle, really. What could be put
in a catwalk that would make people take pictures of this? To cut a long story short, they should, “Well, we could partner with Victoria’s Secret on Victoria’s Secret’s budget rather than our own. They’ll do a catwalk show on a flight from one coast to the other.
It would be very interesting, visually, to the passengers on it. They’ll take lots of pictures of it and show it to their friends. Indeed, the media will take lots of pictures of it and show it to their friends. When you see that kind of array of images that came out of it, at one level, it was like just a brilliant PR stunt for Virgin, and actually, it’s much more strategic than that.
It’s a way of getting other people’s resources to show an image of your purple mood lighting, which is a trigger for trial to a much broader swathe of consumers. They did that consistently with all sorts of partnerships. They partnered with Google piloting the Chromebook. They were based in San Francisco, so they had access to a whole bunch of kind of newer tech in Silicon Valley. They premiered an episode of Entourage with HBO where they kind of dressed the plane and they had the stars on the plane, and again, got lots of people to take the photographs of the cabin, and they found lots of ways, innovative ways, of creating an event within the cabin that got the media to show pictures of this purple mood lighting.
It’s just a brilliant example of it. That, of course, is not purpose-based, per se. That’s just about taking an idea and really interesting partnerships. But, even coming back to this point about partnerships, in most companies, the person in charge of partnerships is in block 5, floor C, and you never actually see them. How you actually drive a much greater sense of network, enabled network, enabled partnerships, as an entrepreneur with an organization is one of the things that really defines whether you can make this resourcefulness actually happen or not.
Wonderful. What we’ll do is we’ll include some of the tools in the show notes, and I think it is hugely empowering for people listening who are, perhaps, under the incorrect assumption that the lack of resources is a stumbling block. As you say, can actually open up all sorts of opportunity if one things about them differently, and a more connecting the ambition to the overall constraint sounds like the way that these people in Virgin certainly managed to do this.
If I can just begin to wrap this up, Adam, with the three questions I sent through to you beforehand, first question: what have you changed your mind about recently?
One of the things I’ve changed my mind about recently is what is ethical and unethical in business. I run a small company. We’ve never worked on tobacco, we’ve never worked on factory farms, and I sort of imagine that that would be the limit of it. Increasingly, as I look at what’s happening with automation, I’m wondering whether automation is going to become and should become, for us at least, perhaps a broader swathe of the business is another thing that we object to work on.
For instance, a colleague of mine was saying that they’ve been working on a consultancy project for a large retailer that was looking at totally automated local stores, and where not certainly was there no human presence on the checkout, but actually, everything else about the store was automated. At some point, we have to say, “That is simply unethical. That is going to destroy small communities and simply take away jobs to a point where it doesn’t make sense for society and we should not support it.”
That’s one of the big shifts. I’m very, very uncomfortable about the way that automation is going and what it means for us as a society, and I think I’ve changed my view about that.
As you talk, I think of places where automation is appearing. It’s in the hotel industry, obviously, and in the car industry, in the factories, in the warehouses. That does seem like a constraint that you’ll be putting on your business if one believes the future is talking about the impact that automation is going to have on vast swathes of society.
Yeah, I just don’t think we’re doing it in a considered enough way, and we’re not thinking of it as an organization that, as businesses that serve society rather than simply that serve the shareholder. I don’t think we’re thinking about it in a balanced way. My perspective of the world is the world has become unbalanced in a very significant way, and part of the responsibility of a good business is to preserve that balance, and I don’t think we are considering it in a balanced enough way.
Second question: what do you do to remain innovative and creative?
I find that a large part of my work, as you know, is like yours: talking to people. I find that actually the most excited I get is when I’ve gone and talked to somebody who’s doing something really interesting, and I’ve had that particular perspective on the world, and you’ve walked in their shoes for 40 minutes, 50 minutes, an hour, however long it is, and I’m enormously excited by that. If I can get a chance to actually talk to a group of those people in the course of quite the condensed time, two, three, four days, and start to kind of generalize from the particular and start to create new models, new ways of seeing the world, that’s the most exciting and refreshing and rejuvenating thing I can do.
Fully understand. Then, the final question, Adam: to what do you attribute your success in life? Are there any specific skills or habits or mindsets that you’ve mastered that have really made a significant impact?
I think there’s a couple of them, really. The first is I think that, primarily, in the days where they used to ask you to put your profession in the passport, I would like to write in my profession in that slot: toolmaker. So, I don’t really think of myself as a thinker or a book writer. I think of those as being tools that are useful for people. I think, genuinely, being useful and creating frameworks and tools that are a bridge from the particular theory or the particular study into something they can do in their everyday life, I think, is something that’s been right at the heart of the business I’ve created and the pleasure I’ve got out of creating it. It’s been fundamental.
The second thing, I think, is the ability to be genuinely curious in everything. I find that one the big differences between really good people and the organization that I have, and people who are very able, but perhaps aren’t going to, therefore the potential is that the latter are not able to be interested in everything. They’re very selective curiosity, and I think, actually, you need to be naturally curious in everything, or be able to be curious in everything, and therefore, only if you’re genuinely curious in it can you actually listen to it.
I think the third thing is that point about listening, really. I think I’m still shocked by how poor most of the business world is at listening, and how much it places emphasis on talking, and I think I’m a really good listener.
On that curiosity point, do you have a view on whether curiosity can be taught or nurtured? What do you do if you’ve got a high potential talent who’s struggling in your organization with being curious? Is there anything that you feel that you’ve been able to do to help them bring it forward a little bit more?
I think you have to make it personal for all of them. You have to say, “I understand, at the moment, there is no personal connection between you and this category.” What you need to find is what person he could interest you about that category. I think if you work with somebody to help them find the personal connection, whether it’s the nature of the problem. It’s not a problem they’ve had to solve before, so even if they’re not interested in the category, it’s a new kind of problem for them whether it’s actually the importance of solving this problem to the people that actually are coming to one and wanting to be one’s clients.
So, in that case, establishing a relationship that one likes about them. That means that you like them so much you want to solve their problem for them. I think you have to help them find what is the queue and what is the trigger for that interest, and then everything else follows.
Fantastic. Well, Adam, it’s been great having you on the show. I’m sure our audience will have enjoyed it as much as I did. What we’ll do is we’ll put some materials in the show notes so that people can find more from you. Perhaps you could just let us know, where can people go to get in touch with you? What’s your website and your Twitter handle?
Yes, the website is eatbigfish.com, and my Twitter handle is @eatbigfish. E-A-T-B-I-G-F-I-S-H, or they can just contact me directly at [email protected], and I’m delighted to follow up with any answers to any questions.
Wonderful. Well, thank you very much for your time, and we’ll look forward to hearing from you when we get the show out in the next few weeks.
Thanks, Mark. Thanks. Bye.