Sometimes less really is more, especially where starting a successful business is concerned.
It’s easy to assume you’re doing well when you have plenty of resources. Problems can be ignored, for now. Waste can go unnoticed, for now. Revenue shortfalls can be covered by cash reserves, for now.
In fact, “more”–more money, more time, more automation, more connections, etc.–can actually make long-term success more difficult. Constraints can often be a blessing in (seemingly painful) disguise.
David Bowie and “Heroes”
Constraints can also fuel creativity and innovation and built forward momentum by eliminating the temptation to sift through seemingly infinite possibilities.
Case in point: David Bowie’s song “Heroes.”
George Murray’s bass parts were recorded using an effect called a flanger, a processor that results in a harsher, more metallic timbre.
According to Bowie’s producer, Tony Visconti:
This was another thing that was unconventional. Even in those days, people said, “Don’t put any effects on to tape because you can’t take the effect off.” That’s exactly what Bowie and I did do. We always put the effect on the tape so we couldn’t take it off. We didn’t want to change it.
We would start creating a vibe from minute one that was unchangeable.
So if this was the sound? That’s it. We’re going to build “Heroes” on top of this.
Bowie also harnessed a constraint we all face: time.
David [was] quite impatient in the studio. If we want a cowbell and there’s no cowbell around, we’ll start hitting things. It’s quicker to hit things and find a “cowbell” to simulate than phone up for one and wait an hour or two for a cowbell … [because] already the idea will be old.
So Bowie found an empty metal tape reel, and Visconti used a stick to mimic a cowbell.
In short, “Heroes” was built, layer by layer, based on a series of choices. Like the bass flanger sound? Build on it. Want a cowbell, but don’t have one? Find something else that works.
Use what you have, instead of waiting–or wishing–for what you don’t have.
Even if someday, looking back, you might wish you could do some things over.
After listening to a few seconds of the finished backing track, Visconti turns to the camera and chuckles. “I want to mix it again,” he says.
That’s understandable. Everything can be improved. Even a timeless classic.
Yet embracing an apparent contradiction is often the best way forward.
Businesses and Constraints
In a 2017 study published in Academy of Management Journal that I’ve written about before, researchers asked employees to rate their willingness to embrace contradictions. They were then asked to rate how often they experienced resource constraints: limited time, limited funds, limited resources, limited supplies, etc.
Meanwhile, their bosses rated each employee in terms of overall performance, creativity, and innovation.
What happened? Employees who ranked on the low end of what researchers called “the paradox mindset” scale (meaning they disliked contradictions, much less embracing them) struggled with constraints–their performance dropped whenever they felt resources were insufficient.
On the flip side, employees who found it challenging and even fun to overcome constraints were the better performers, especially when creativity and problem-solving were required.
And here’s the kicker: The presence of constraints often caused the performance of those employees to improve.
Yep: Constraints made them better, not worse.
The same is often true for startups. Nearly every successful founder I’ve spoken to is grateful for the lean days, the bootstrapped, scrappy, thankful-for-anything-that-came-their-way days.
They didn’t have money to throw at problems. They didn’t have time to wait for the “perfect” solution. They didn’t enjoy the luxury of lingering over every decision. Instead, they had to be creative. They had to innovate. They had to make choices, and move on.
Looking back, they all say those constraints built the foundation for later success.
Embracing constraints–like limited resources, opposing demands, or seeming contradictions–could help you look at old problems in entirely new ways.
And find solutions just waiting to be discovered.
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