Thinking Inside the Box [and “the beauty of constraints”]

Just finished reading a terrific book:   A Beautiful Constraint, by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden.   This is a hugely important contribution to the way that we think about and function within institutions.   All institutions have constraints.   In some cases, there is the constraint that leads to operational drag – as I observe in the conclusion of Institutional Intelligence.   But sometimes, it is not so much a point of drag as it is a “given”:   a limitation that has the potential to be an opportunity and the success of the organization depends on viewing the constraint not as a “problem” but as an occasion to see things differenty. 

The genius of a great composer – perhaps of a piano concerto, such as Beethoven – was not that he had more black keys and more white keys to work with in contrast to others, but that he very intentionally worked within the limitations of this very specific parameter, asking:  what can emerge from this limitation? 

Some resist constraints and in a sense resent them; they respond as a victim.  Others, Morgan and Barden observe, negotiate around the constraint in an attempt to neutralize it.   But the genius of a great response is to transform the limitation into an opportunity:  to see possibilities that are only be seen because you are “thinking ‘inside’ the box” – that is, that what could be and what could happen will only be seen and embraced if and as you accept the constraint . . . not only accept, but actually embrace the constraint and leverage it. 

The limitation of space, for example.   At Ambrose University, we were running out of classroom space as the university grew.  So, in response, we created hybrid courses where half the course is on line and the other hand in a classroom.  Just like that, we only had more classroom space available to us, but the result was that we came to see some definite strengths and learning opportunities that we were, in a sense, “forced” into. 

The key, of course, is to recognize the difference.   Where is something a constraint that really needs to be tackled and addressed if the organization is going to flourish?   It is an operational drag.   And, where is a constraint something that might be precisely that – a “beautiful” limitation and thus an opportunity for new learning, new creativity and new possibilities that would not have otherwise been seen.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.