Rice University management professor Scott Sonenshein explains how to use constraints to make your company more creative and adaptable.
The dotcom bubble saw the rise and fall of many promising tech companies, including those with intelligent team members and lots of initial funding. Scott Sonenshein, the Henry Gardiner Symonds Professor of Management at Rice University, was working in Silicon Valley at the time of the bust, and realized that most companies had been measuring success in terms of the number of resources they could attain, instead of fully utilizing what they started with.
"One of the reasons organizations have a hard time adapting is they get very stuck in the way they use their existing resources," Sonenshein said. "You can build your whole business model around trying to acquire more resources, but it's more important to be able to use what you have in more creative and engaged ways."
The experience inspired the research found in Sonenshein's book Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less—and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagine, out this week. The concept of "stretching" is about learning to work with the resources you already have—including time, money, connections, knowledge, and tangible objects—to achieve a business goal.
"You have a lot more value in your resources than you realize," Sonenshein said. "When you get into the stretching mindset, you better appreciate what you have, and better use what you have."
Stretching also helps enterprises be more creative, and allows them to view their resources in new ways to adapt to change, he said. "It's hard to control how many resources flow into use—can we always get the hiring we want, is capital always accessible?" Sonenshein said. "What we can control and build competencies on is how we can actually use what we have. Whether benevolent resources or difficult resources, if we know how to stretch, we can face whatever those circumstances might be."
Here are 10 ways to stretch at your company.
1. Avoid chasing.
The opposite of stretching? Chasing—constantly comparing your organization to others, and believing that you need the same resources they have to be successful. "You can orient your whole career around getting those things, but there's always going to be someone who has more," Sonenshein said. "You could be a multi-millionaire successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and look at Larry Page and feel unsuccessful."
2. Embrace constraints.
Stretching requires you to consider the resources around you, Sonenshein said, and realize that you have permission to use those resources in creative ways. "It's about embracing constraints, and recognizing that they aren't something to avoid, but that you can seek them out," Sonenshein said. "In the tech world, that's the way so many innovative companies are born—under constraints."
But as companies expand, the chasing mentality often takes over. "When you're trying to grow bigger and you think more resources are key, you lose the ability to be resourceful," Sonenshein said. "Eventually if resources like venture capital dry up, as it did in the dot com era, you're left with a model that can get stuff but can't work with what you have. It makes it harder to adapt." Embracing constraints when you have resources, and not just when you have to do so, is a good habit.
3. Create artificial limits.
The first step to learning to embrace constraints is creating artificial limits for your company. As a leader, try to deliver a project under budget, or ask one less person to be on your team. "Try not to just work through constraints, but work better with them," Sonenshein said.
4. Be frugal.
"Being good stewards of our resources makes us more productive, and gives us freedom to be more unconventional," Sonenshein said. "Frugal people have permission to do things differently, because they are not steeped in traditions of having to do things like everyone else. What other people see as not valuable can unlock a lot of possibility by just acting with it." For example, General Motors takes waste from manufacturing plants and recycles it into car parts—making the company an extra $1 billion per year.
5. Seek out diverse perspectives.
Stretching means searching for other perspectives. "It's about finding diverse experiences, and recognizing that when you experience the world from different perspectives, you can see how your resources interact in new ways," Sonenshein said. For example, you might study how other industries solve similar problems to yours in a different context.
Often, the further someone is from the focal point of a question, the more likely they are to find a solution, Sonenshein said. "Experts are looking in one particular set of lenses and one set of frameworks, which if they worked, would have already solved the problem," he added. "Bringing in outsiders allows you to see connections in different ways using what you have."
6. Visit new places.
People tend to focus on acquiring expertise that matters for their current jobs, and want immediate payoff, Sonenshein said. But if you spend time at an industry conferences that is divorced from your own work, or have lunch with someone with your job in a different industry, you might gain new insight into business operations and solutions. "Experience different ways people might be solving similar problems," Sonenshein said.
7. Act without a script.
Many companies create five year plans, though research shows there is not a strong correlation between strategic planning and long-term performance. "You end up planning for a future that doesn't exist," Sonenshein said. "More successful organizations can process real-time information and act with that information, as opposed to trying to plan everything out." He advises companies to experiment with throwing out the plan, and seeing what is gained or lost.
8. Have high expectations for your staff.
It's important to recognize that what you expect of your individual team members is usually what you get, Sonenshein said. "Oftentimes we expect the worst in people, and that's what you end up finding," he added. Instead, set high expectations for every team member, and create a self-fulfilling prophecy for success.
9. Try unusual combinations.
"A lot of innovation comes from putting things together that normally don't go together," Sonenshein said. For example, when phone manufacturers combined a phone and a camera, it changed so much about our daily lives and the technology we use, he said.
10. Do something mindless.
Putting a project to the side and playing solitaire or talking a walk frees up your mind to make connections at a subconscious level in a way that isn't possible when you are focused on a specific task all the time. "Taking a break and doing something mindless helps us think about using our resources in new ways," he said.
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