Turn Stumbling Blocks Into Stepping Stones

Last week we looked at the third personal transformer: embrace constraints

The biggest amount of feedback centred on “we get how constraints can ‘force creativity’ but how do we ‘proactively’ embrace constraints?”

A constraint you don’t think about creatively and strategically is just an inconvenience.

So please find a six-step prescription for transforming a constraint into something useful.

When faced with a constraint, we initially tend to adopt a victim mind-set, believing a constraint will inhibit our ability to realize an ambition. We either go into denial around the constraint or reduce our ambition to fit the perceived impact of the constraint. As we move into the neutralizing stage, we recognize that the constraint to inhibit it, and start looking for workaround strategies. In the responsive transformer stage, we recognize that the constraint could be the catalyst for a better solution. We may even impose constraints to stimulate thinking, leading to breakthrough approaches and solutions.

If you have locked in ways of thinking and behaving, examine your biases, personal or organizational, and analyse what you mean by them. Then examine how you usually approach the challenge of a constraint. What is your typical approach? How could it be different?

A propelling question links a bold ambition to a significant constraint. Think of escape artist Harry Houdini. If you are low on resources, what grand idea ambition can you hitch your wagon to? If you have significant resources and a clear ambition, what constraint could you impose that would preclude you from thinking about the problem the way you would instinctively?

I have just got back from seeing a great keynote on ‘Improvised Leadership’ by the always wonderful, Simon Dowling. And it got me thinking about how improvisational comedy teams work. In a skit, players never contradict one another, each actor builds on what the previous actor said or did. Instead of saying “No, but,” they immediately proceed to “Yes, and.” When you come upon a constraint instead of thinking, “ I can’t because,” focus instead on how the problem can be solved, beginning every statement with “I can, if…”

If you lack resources, find a way to access them from elsewhere. Rather than focus on the resources you control or are given, think of other resources you can access, including those of stakeholders, external partners, even competitors, and then figure out how you can barter with them to obtain the resources you need.

If we cannot connect the need to transform our constraint with an emotional reason why it matters, we wont have the stubborn adaptive-ness and creative tenacity when our initial solutions hit setbacks. You’ll want the full range: fear, frustration, excitement, and love. Emotions are at their most potent when they contrast. The tension prompts us to make a plan and act on it more than positive thinking alone does. When you activate the right emotions, you can move from the victim into the transformer mindset.


In 1954, an editor at Houghton Mifflin, read the now famous article “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” and, concerned, he challenged on of his friends: “Take 225 words every six year old knows and write me a story first-graders can’t put down.” It took a year and a half, and at one point the friend was so discouraged he almost gave up entirely.

But when Theodore Geisel published The Cat in the Hat in 1957, it was an instant hit. Years of reciting rhymes and creating cartoons prepared Geisel to reinvent children’s literature when presented with a 225-word constraint.

For transformers like you and me and Dr Seuss, constraints aren’t a check on our freedom. As we learn to embrace them, they become valuable tools of creation.

Whether we create or impose constraints, having a plan for how to make constraints work for you – asking not “”Why does this happen to me?” but “How did this happen to help me? – is the difference between bracing yourself for a lesser version of you, and moving at a breakneck speed up your personal transformational curve.

To get a deeper understanding of how these capabilities play out with each individual, read more at embrace constraints

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