The Value Of Constraints

One of the biggest challenges for any in-house marketing team is to continue to grow and innovate year-over-year but with the same budget and resources as last year.

These constraints can often feel insurmountable, but they may be your secret weapon. 

We often think of constraints as things that hold us back. However, the truth is actually the opposite—we need constraints to achieve our full potential.

In fact, good work may even require constraints. It may not be possible to do our best work when we have free rein. 

George Lucas needed the constraints of the original Star Wars—a limited budget, brand new technology, doubting studios—to achieve his full potential. Once those constraints were removed and he had his own personal fortune to draw on, unlimited use of technology he’d pioneered and perfected, and final say on every decision, we got Jar Jar Binks. 

Constraints force us to be inventive while the lack of constraints allow us to be boring. As Ernest Rutherford said, “We've got no money, so we've got to think.”

In A Beautiful Constraint, Adam Morgan and Mark Barden say that Zappos’ success is largely due to the constraints of buying shoes online. Because the shopper wouldn’t have the ability to try the shoes on before buying, to be successful Zappos had to pioneer their “we pay all shipping costs” policy and they had to create a best-in-the-world customer service experience. The two things that make Zappos unique come from the constraintsof selling shoes online.

Dollar Shave Club started because the CEO’s friend had a warehouse of razor blades he needed to unload. So what did they do? They created one of the best advertisements of all time. With an unlimited budget? With a famous cast? With an expensive ad agency? No, with $4,500 and a friend with improv experience. The constraints made them famous. With more money, we’d probably have never heard of them.

Sailor Jerry was selling more than a million cases of rum a year before they ran any advertising. Because its creator, Steven Grasse, wanted full control over how the product was marketed, their distributor wouldn’t invest in advertising. How do you sell a spirit brand without advertising—a pretty enormous constraint? Grasse did it by creating an entire lifestyle brand and aesthetic around the product.

Grasse credits the success to “being interesting on the inside.” Because when you don’t have money to spend on telling people about your product, you need people to talk about your product on your behalf, which means simply being more interesting in every way.

In-house marketers are fortunate that they have a lot of constraints. Budgets rarely change materially, and there are always more requests, goals and wishes than there are hours in the day.

But the best in-house marketers are looking at each of these constraints as an opportunity.

Marcus Aurelius said, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way,” which Ryan Holiday summarizes as: The Obstacle is the Way.

Whatever your current constraint, behind it is an opportunity to do something special and unexpected.

Look past your constraints into their potential and you’ll find that there is a lot of value in constraint.