Most of us have a tendency to keep a mental list of all those things in our lives that are stopping us from doing what we really want to do or that are constraining us from reaching our full potential. But although there is much advice out there how every situation has a positive side, how do we actually take challenges in our lives and consider them as positive?

What really opened my eyes on this issue was Dave Stachowiak’s interview with Mark Barden, in Coaching For Leaders (episode 207), who is the co-author of A Beautiful Constraint . In A Beautiful Constraint, Mark Barden and Adam Morgan argue that “constraints get a bad rap” usually because we are so focused on explaining our limitations and why things are not progressing. But Barden and Morgan argue that constraints are actually great, and that it is the very nature of constraints, which actually fuels innovation:

“By making a constraint beautiful, we mean seeing it as an opportunity, not a punitive restriction, and using it as a stimulus to see a new or better way of achieving our ambition”.

Why did Mick Jagger develop his own style on stage? Because he was so constrained by the space on the stage that was all the space he had to move in. Why is Jerry Seinfeld so successful that people laugh even if he is only talking about the process of buying milk? Because he sets constraints on himself: he excels in making jokes about the very mundane things and not those that are usually expected from comedians.

But we rarely land straight away in this space of inventiveness when we are faced with severe constraints in our lives whether personally or at work. When you do not have the same resources that others have or when you get a task that seems almost impossible to deliver, 3 different mindsets come into play:


  1. Victim: The first reaction that most of us have is being a victim: Why did this happen to me? What can I possibly achieve given that I am already behind because of this situation?”. If we stay in this mindset, we lower our ambition and work within the constraints more or less. We choose less ambitious options and strategies, and get our task done. But our results remain less than optimal results and we are likely to explain to ourselves and others that this is because we were “constrained”.
  2. Neutralizer: The second stage is “How can I get this task/reach this ambition despite these constraints?”. In this stage, people start looking at how to circumvent the constraints that are at play in the situation. This means not lowering the ambition but delivering the results by using other strategies.
  3. Transformer: This third stage is looking at the constraints and actually using them to elevate innovation and even scale up ambition. This means getting to the stage where you are excited about why things are so hard, and actually decide to deliver the best work because of these constraints.

First Barden and Morgan thought that people are either a Victim, Neutraliser or Transformer and that is how they could analyse company, brand and product success. But during their research, they came to realise that no one is purely in one mindset but it is rather a continuum of mindsets that many of us go through. In this light, it is more about recognising what mindset you are having in a particular situation, and progressing over time towards understanding the beauty in your current constraints.

This movement across continuum is painful however as we need to have self-awareness and reflection to first of all to let go of the idea of being a victim. Not everyone is capable of moving from that mindset and that is something we need to understand and embrace. Also, often it is far easier for an outsider to point out the beauty in your constraints rather than you discovering how amazing they are. This is because our everyday life and the stories we tell to ourselves what our lives are like and why are often deeply emotional and resistant to change.

How does this relate to leadership? Turns out that leaders who understand the intricate blessings of constraints are actually more effective and innovative. This is because:

  • “They believe that transformers are made, not born
  • They steer their organisation toward constraints, not away from them
  • They set a high level of ambition, and legitimise that ambition
  • They know when to reject compromise for that ambition
  • They get people to believe that it is possible
  • They use tension and storytelling to generate a longer-term emotional commitment
  • They encourage and enable their teams to challenge the organisation’s routines and assumptions
  • They know how to manage the transformation threshold” (p. 227-230)

In my research, I’ve spent lots of time trying to understand why climate change adaptation is not being implemented, and analysing the kinds of constraints that seem to be blocking action. There is now a massive literature on barriers and constraints to climate adaptation and we now have a very detailed understanding of these constraints: why climate adaptation is not a priority in local and state government policy processes, why people are having hard time engaging with climate change as an issue, why governments and communities struggle in coordinating actions that could result in co-benefits, why scarcity of human and financial resources decrease opportunities for adaptation, why multiple levels of governance complicate policy implementation.

The next steps would be to take all of these constraints and ask how we can make them beautiful. What kinds of compelling questions can we ask that can propel us from the victim mindset to neutraliser and even transformer? How can we scale up ambition when faced with constraints? How can we use resource scarcity as a tool to fuel innovation? What does it take to turn a fixed mindset towards one that embraces the process of learning?

I realise I am not doing justice to the book or its ideas here as there is just too much to cover for one blog post so I strongly encourage to visit A Beautiful Constraint and get a hold of the book as well. Perhaps one day Barden’s and Morgan’s definition of constraint as “a limitation or defining parameter, often the stimulus to find a better way of doing something” will become a dictionary term where we accept our constraints and fuel innovation through harnessing these factors for more personal and professional growth.