Book review: A Beautiful Constraint

You know that camp dance thing Mick Jagger does on stage with his arms close to his sides and his arse sticking out? It's now his trademark move. But he first developed it in the early days of the Rolling Stones not because it was distinctive, but because the stages were so small that he couldn't do much else.

According to Adam Morgan and Mark Barden, authors of A Beautiful Constraint, it’s an example of how constraints or limitations can be "catalytic forces that stimulate exciting new approaches and possibilities". Others include the Google home page (it was all the coding Larry Page could do when he created it) and the iconic game character Super Mario (it was all the pixels Nintendo devices could handle).

The key to a constraint, say the authors, is to "make it beautiful" – to stop seeing it as a punitive restriction and start viewing it as an opportunity. And that’s what this tightly written tome is about: a user’s guide to turning lemons into lemonade.

The book describes how we get locked into practices that blind us to more productive alternatives, and provides strategies to overcome our inertia. A chapter on ‘propelling questions’ details how to frame questions that force us off well-worn paths of thought. A key technique is asking questions that most people would think unreasonable – Tesla’s "how can we build a car that goes like a rocket and achieves 90mpg?" is a prime example.

This could easily have come across as little more than a self-help business manual mouthing clichés. But, in the assured hands of Morgan and Barden, it’s a gentle but insistent boot up the backside for anyone who wants to improve their business – or personal – performance.

By Adam Morgan and Mark Barden

Published by John Wiley & Sons

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