One hundred years this January since the death of the person who inspired the origins of the expression "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade" Marshall P. Wilder, who in spite of physical disadvantages became a very successful performer and celebrity, and in whose epitaph was described as follows: "He picked up the lemons that Fate had sent him and started a lemonade-stand.'Funny," when I founded an ad agency 16 years ago, I felt the same way.
What's striking, though, is that in the intervening 100 years, although this has become something we all know we are supposed to know what to do, no one has actually attempted to write down how to turn life's lemons into lemonade. Until now: two ex-admen have come along claiming to have done just that. And, they say, they are men on a mission. They have written a new book entitled: A Beautiful Constraint: how to turn your limitations into advantages, and why it is everyone's business. Being someone who prides himself on his ability to make a fragrant and refreshing lemonade, I thought I would ask Adam Morgan and Mark Barden about their delicious new book.
Scott: So can there really be a recipe for lemonade? Isn't this inherently a creative process which can't be codified?
Adam and Mark: We spent three years researching just that. We came from creative advertising and marketing, like you, so of course had a real interest in examples there, but wanted to look at people who were being successfully inventive in a much broader range of fields as well, from engineering to game design to agriculture to education.
And what we found is that there really are a common set of strategies which if, taken together, seem to run across most people who have done this successfully. You just need to be really clear on how to leverage the right mindset, method and motivation.
Scott: Give me an example of a couple of those strategies
Adam and Mark: It's about how to ask questions in the right way - how linking a big ambition to a constraint makes us actually think differently about the situation. And then about how to approach answers in the right way - Can If, rather than can't because, and why it is essential to keep optimism alive in the search for answers.)
Scott: You talk a lot about 'inventiveness' as a skill that needs to sit alongside innovation in this respect. What do you mean by that?
Adam & Mark: Of course innovation is important. But there's two big problems with it - personal and cultural. At a personal level, innovation has been so deified that it has become this specialist, technical function that is the exclusive preserve of a few people in a corporate bunker over in D Wing - so we think of it as something 'big' that the rest of us can't contribute to or participate in. And yet we desperately need people in every area of our company to think more creatively about the constraints they find themselves tackling, and we need a name and language for that skill and expectation if we want it to grow. And the second, related problem with innovation is a cultural one: most companies are so transfixed by it as the solution to all their growth challenges that they don't spend enough time thinking about how to be more transformative in their core, with what they already have. We want to reclaim the notion of inventiveness as that creative way of reseeing possibilities and opportunities in apparent constraints that all of us can and should be participating in
Scott: What was the biggest surprise in your research?
A&M: Well, probably something you can relate to. We had developed this hypothesis that there are broadly three types of people: victims, neutralizers, and transformers, who define a continuum with regard to capability in transforming constraints, with victims at one end and transformers at the other. But Michael Beirut, the famous graphic designer, told us that he often responded as a victim when confronted with a difficult brief and then worked his way toward the transformative stage as he grappled with the problem. These are stages not types. Dan Wieden said something very similar. We had expected these creative geniuses to feel a little more at ease with constraint given their experience, but apparently not. Like a game of Chutes and Ladders, you get to slide back to the beginning each time! So while some people might be better equipped to progress through the stages, based on their qualifications, or experience, this helpless victim stage of the journey is a very common start point. That's reassuring in a way. And it allows us to bridge the gap between the creative gurus and the rest of us.
Scott: I worked on the global brand strategy for Mahindra, one of India's most powerful companies. In building their global master brand strategy I interviewed many of the senior executives in Mumbai who spoke of their culture and pride in what they called "Jugaad" which, loosely translated means to work with your resource constraints to achieve great things. It inspired an entire organization and served to underpin the brand movement 'Rise' for the global corporation.
Scott: This sounds like an optimistic piece of work.
Adam and Mark: It is. Despite the many headwinds we face in mature economies and the resource constraints of a planet on its way to 9 billion people, when one starts to understand just how often the constraint itself contains the seeds of change, one can start to believe that solutions are within reach. We hope that in some small way this book can help more people, in all walks of life, make this journey to the transformative stage and that together we can find more beauty in constraint. This way lies progress.