Tightening the Belt, Managing in Times of Change, & The Better Path to Innovation

by JD Supra Perspectives
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[In-house perspective on constraints-based innovation by Matt Fawcett, senior VP, general counsel, chief compliance counsel, and secretary for multinational data storage and management company NetApp:]

"We have to do more with less."

We’ve all heard it. It’s usually followed by talking about “tightening our belts.”

I’ve yet to hear someone say, “That’s it everyone, the time is right for us to loosen our belts again.”

Management culture generates many, many clichés but this is one of the oldest and most embedded. Across industries and eras, people have talked about this elusive goal of “doing more with less.” Whenever a company faces a challenging time and needs to cut costs it is the obvious thing for the CEO to say.

I look around our industry, the enterprise IT industry, and I see a massive shift underway. We are facing huge transformations as the cloud and new buyer preferences alter the landscape. Customers do not want to make massive capital investments in IT that they will need to depreciate over a long period of time. Many technology companies, including mine, are taking a hard look at how they invest in and operate their business, constraining investment and cutting costs.

Leave the belt behind

The old ways of working simply don’t work anymore. Companies have fewer resources to deploy while simultaneously dealing with a more complex, global economy. So what does that mean? Should we really “do more with less”? Is that the right message to set internally, is that the right mission?

Absolutely not.

And not only is it unhelpful, it is actually dangerous. I reject it because it immediately locks everyone into a defensive, hunkered-down, uninspired mindset. It implies that you will keep running things the same way, just pushing harder in the hope of somehow generating better results with fewer resources.

It implies that you will keep running things the same way, just pushing harder in the hope of somehow generating better results with fewer resources.

Don’t talk about tightening the belt: forget about the belt completely. Ask entirely new questions to generate entirely new ways of working, and entirely new results. Stop looking for the “least bad” alternative and start looking for an approach that actually improves outcomes.

Ingenuity and creativity often come from limits 

Call it “constraints-based innovation.” You see it in art, science, and yes, business and technology. In normal times, organizations tend to improve in steps or even half-steps, following a gradual innovation path. In times of lack, they can potentially take a big leap forward.

Embrace the power of constraints

There are many examples.

During the production of Jaws, Stephen Spielberg couldn’t get the mechanical shark meant to be at the center of the film to work. Strapped of resources to make another one, he was forced to reimagine the movie completely. The film became about the unseen enemy lurking under the water – a minimalist approach that proved far more effective and terrifying.

The renowned Danish architect Bjarke Ingels has also seized on the power of constraints. His surprising, wildly innovative structures might seem to be the product of a revolutionary iconoclast. In reality, they are the result of his embracing constraints and limitations. Within that more restricted creative space, he finds a way to create something entirely new.

...constraint-based innovation is about significant change created by the fact that resource is not abundant.

Here’s the important point: constraint-based innovation is about significant change created by the fact that resource is not abundant. It starts with the recognition that radically new conditions require a radically new approach. “Belt-tightening” is about achieving some incremental degree of savings. It is about trying to wring out a little bit more for less.

If you focus on belt-tightening over constraint-based innovation you miss the real opportunity. The game shouldn’t be: how do we squeeze more out of our machine? The game should be: how do we build a new machine?  So before you tell your team to “do more with less,” realize that sounds like, “Let’s do the same work as always, only worse.” Don’t set yourself on a course for failure.

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[As senior vice president, general counsel, chief compliance counsel, and secretary for NetApp, Matthew Fawcett is responsible for all legal affairs worldwide, including corporate governance and securities law compliance, intellectual property matters, contracts, and mergers and acquisitions. He has overseen the development of NetApp Legal into a global high-performance organization with a unique commitment to innovation and transformation.]

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