Creating a constraints-busting culture

Approaching boundaries and limitations with the right mindset is critical to unlocking your creativity

In business, as in all areas of life, it is so easy to think, I don’t have enough. Whether we are trying to launch a new product, move into a new market or just meet the next quarter’s revenue goal, it is easy to feel helplessly crippled by a shortage of resources—time, talent, expertise, customers and of course, money.

When we come from a place of scarcity, there always is a reason we cannot do it. Not only does this mindset hold us back from what could be a huge victory, it creates a company full of victim thinkers.

Instead of being motivated by challenges, employees get in the habit of giving up way too soon. They get fixated on what they lack, not what they have, and it paralyzes them. They start blaming circumstances for their failures. This attitude compounds over time, and the whole culture gets bogged down in negativity and defeatism. That’s when the spark of innovation flickers and dies.

It does not have to be this way. In fact, constraints can energize you and unlock your creativity when approached with the right mindset. Ironically—or perhaps not—one of my greatest business victories happened early in my career when my team was faced with what seemed an impossible task: build a next-generation Windows product in a shockingly short amount of time.

We had a tiny team of six people and very few resources. Really, we needed at least 30 people to do this job. Other teams of more than 100 people were working toward the same objective. But the fact that we faced such ridiculous constraints forced us to get super-creative. We focused on finding existing components and assembled a system out of pre-built pieces. Ultimately, we launched our new product two years ahead of almost all our competitors.

The lesson? When we respond to constraints by getting super-engaged and focused, it unleashes incredible innovative power and allows us to beat almost insurmountable odds. How can you get your team into this mindset?

Here are a few tips for creating a culture of overcoming constraints:

Our first instinct is often to see ourselves as victims of circumstance. Do you ever find yourself saying: “We don’t have _. Of course we cannot do that.” Or, “Look at what they have. No wonder they were so successful!” That’s your victim mentality keeping you from finding creative ways to make it work.

Here’s the problem: Your mindset bleeds down into the rest of the team.

You cannot always change your circumstances, but you can always change your mindset. Stop making victim statements. Instead of saying, “We cannot,” start asking, “What can we do with what we have?” Also, when team members make these kinds of statements, remind them that there is always a solution.

There will always be a million things you can’t do. Instead of hand-wringing over the constraints, find three or four things that you can do right now and execute on them. These quick wins will generate some early momentum. This is critical to getting employees engaged and excited about the goal and helping them see that success is possible.

The obvious solution might not be possible for you. If we had all the time and money in the world, we’d all just do the first thing we thought of. Constraints force us to really get creative and problem-solve. Realize that just because there is no immediately clear solution doesn’t mean that there’s no solution. Call a brainstorming session and get people focused on creative problem-solving.

We had a client who served the construction market who decided to face a recession in a very different way. Rather than cut staff and expenses, they analyzed their business and realized a large percentage of their profits came from a few of their products. They narrowed their product offering and allocated more cash and resources to high-value activity.

As a result, over the next three years they increased sales by 50 percent. By facing the constraints of a recession, they figured out a better way to do business that may not have occurred to them otherwise.

Banish all assumptions and start with a beginner’s mindset. Are there new (cheaper, faster, more effective) ways to do it? Are there alternative programs, materials, vendors, processes, etc. that you have never considered? Have things changed and you’ve gotten too complacent to move with the times? What unspoken rules are you following?

Are you letting personal biases rule out possible solutions? Is there something you’re doing now that you could stop doing to free up time, capital or resources? Is there someone in your company whose gifts are not being leveraged, someone who might have the insight and expertise to break the problem wide open?

This can be a real exercise in humility. It is not easy to assume you don’t know, and it certainly is not easy to step out of your comfort zone. But when you get rid of all assumptions and start fresh, you can have amazing breakthroughs.

There’s often a “one step forward, two steps back” rhythm to innovation, which means your team is going to need some staying power. Here’s the thing: Resiliency doesn’t just happen; it is cultivated. Make sure people feel safe enough to speak up without fear. Keep them connected to the larger mission.

And instill a sense of optimism by celebrating small wins and reminding them, “We’ve overcome constraints before, and we can do it again.” Most of all, show them you love and care for them.

Strange as it may sound, great leaders truly love their employees. Great teammates love each other. I always say love is the bonding force that holds teams together. It’s also what allows teams to get knocked down and get back up again.

Bottom line: There will always be constraints. If there were not, we would never know what we are capable of doing.

We have all heard the adage that necessity is the mother of invention. It is true. If we always had an easy solution at hand, we would never push boundaries and take leaps of faith and leave comfort zones behind. Constraints are the gifts that force us to grow.

Gary Harpst is the author of “Built to Beat Chaos: Biblical Wisdom for Leading Yourself and Others.” He also is the founder and CEO of LeadFirst, which helps small- and mid-size companies manage change, grow and execute. Its four-part leadership development system—comprised of people skills, data-driven management skills, management platform, and just-in-time learning—helps organizations bring order out of this swirling chaos. To learn more, visit