Forget Chasing and Start Stretching to Achieve More of What You Want
More money, bigger budgets and ever-increasing resources are what most people want for themselves and their businesses, but what if working with less and learning to leverage what you already have is a better way to stimulate innovation that drives success?
Struggle and scarcity
If anyone knows how to roll up their sleeves, make something out of nothing and get by on a shoestring, it is small business owners. Knowing how to stretch scarce resources and apply them in new ways is a competitive advantage you hold that many big companies lost long ago, according to research by Rice University Professor, Scott Sonenshein, Ph.D.
In his New York Times best-selling book, Stretch, Sonenshein explains why some people and organizations succeed with so little and others fail with so much. It turns out that resource constraints actually help drive innovation and success.
Chasing or stretching
Early in his career, Sonenshein landed a great job with a Silicon Valley start-up in the heady days prior to the dot.com bust. He describes a big team, big budget and venture capitalists pouring money into the endeavor. Until it all imploded. That’s when he realized that constantly chasing more resources and bigger investment was not only an unsustainable model, but often exhausts and cripples organizations in an endless pursuit of more.
“Chasing is a cultural belief that the more we have the more we can do,” he shared in a podcast interview with researcher and author Brené Brown, Ph.D. “We think if we want to solve problems, we just need more time, money or human resources, but what that really does is just make us wait.”
A “stretching” mentality (common among lean startups) instead focuses on embracing existing resources, welcoming tighter constraints and getting to work on creative problem solving.
The trap of functional fixedness
Early in life, we tend to be highly resourceful, until that creative instinct is stifled by learning the “right” way to do things and the “right” tools to do them with. All that inculturation and learning how things are “supposed” to be done or used is what scientists call functional fixedness. It refers to a kind of cognitive bias where we can see only one predetermined use for something.
As an example, Sonenshein shares the idea of handing a young child a frying pan and watching her quickly turn it into an instrument, a bathtub for action figures or a paddle. Give it to an adult, he explains, and we see nothing but a pan for cooking.
The same can be true for fixed perspectives. For example, although our assumption would be that a chemist is best at solving chemistry problems and a biologist at solving biology problems, the Grand Challenges Study with scientists across multiple countries found that an outsider’s perspective led to new perspectives and novel solutions. Scientists actually came up with more creative problem-solving approaches in areas outside their immediate discipline.
Sonenshein explains the finding much like his frying pan example. Once indoctrinated in a specific area or way of doing things, you tend to follow the same strategies to the point of unconsciously ignoring new ways of looking at things or seeing new connections. “Doing things differently is a big part of stretching,” he said.
Adding some stretch to your work
Everyone can learn to stretch Sonenshein said, but resource constraints and challenging circumstances tend to bring resourcefulness to the fore, providing a sense of permission to be more creative and use resources in unique ways.
To keep your mindset “stretchy,” Sonenshein advises sitting down to reflect on and then write a short paragraph about a time when you experienced significant constraints. Research shows this small, simple (and free) exercise can provide that same sort of “permission” that actual constraints do. It empowers you to think differently and continue to create, innovate and maximize the untapped potential in existing resources and generate more creative problem-solving approaches.
Next time you find yourself wishing for the luxury of slack resources and big budgets, remember that your ingenuity and scrappiness are something major companies are striving to recreate. Safeguard yours like the competitive advantage it is.