What Our Family Holiday Can Teach You About Constraints (and How to Overcome Them)

This week, my family flew all the way to Australia to visit one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World – only to be told that a tropical storm meant we couldn’t see it.


The Great Barrier Reef shall forever be known in the McAlpine-Paulin household as “The Great Unseen Barrier Reef” or TGUBR for short (my eight-year-old daughter Sienna is into acronym-ing pretty much everything).

But that’s the way the cookie crumbles. Things go wrong. AWOL. Constraints, U-turns, and roadblocks are part of life. And business.

This surprise holiday “limitation” got me thinking about constraints.

How they’re inevitable. How we get our knickers in a twist and feel sorry for ourselves when they show up.

And how, if we look at constraints in a different light, ironically, they can force us to be more creative. Heck, sometimes they can lead to a better outcome.

Constraints can even be beautiful – if you’re to believe Adam Morgan and Mark Barden in their outstanding book on the subject: A Beautiful Constraint: How To Turn Your Limitations Into Advantages And Why It’s Everyone’s Business.

Here are three constraints I bet you’re familiar with:

  1. The constraint of time. Not enough. Too tight deadlines.
  2. The constraint of resources – usually not enough dosh. Or people.
  3. The constraint of capability – expertise, skills, technology, equipment.

But the next time your bubble of perky enthusiasm is popped by a pickle, instead of wallowing in victim mode or giving up altogether, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do we have to fund it by the usual methods? What resources are in front of our noses that we might not be seeing? A different bank? A different investor? A friend of the firm you’ve forgotten? Crowdsource that puppy, just like two clever businesspeople did when they wanted to keep a New Zealand beach in the hands of Kiwis. Nearly 40,000 people donated almost NZ$2.3m to buy Awaroa beach in the Abel Tasman National Park, due to these two resourceful jokers asking this exact question.
  2. Can you substitute a feature or process and still get the same result? In the book A Beautiful Constraint, Swedish researchers wanted to know why adults didn’t wear bicycle helmets despite knowing the risks. Turns out, it was all about helmets creating unflattering hat hair. The solution? The Hövding – a device that uses airbag technology worn around the neck, leaving the head and hair entirely free of unseemly helmets. Hey pronto – switch helmet for airbag.
  3. If it’s a time constraint, what steps can you either ditch or do concurrently? One food company I know, faced with a tight deadline for a major customer, mapped out all the production steps, identified the ones that could be circumvented or done simultaneously and managed to cut production time by more than 20%.
  4. Capability constraint? Whose expertise can you tap into outside of your organisation? Can you rent your expertise instead of hiring it? Shareholders, customers, and even competitors can offer answers to your capability constraints, if you’re willing to make like a meerkat and look around.

A Beautiful Constraint is like that clever friend you want to phone when you hit the inevitable stop sign. They delve into constraint-busting ideas (and a truckload more) with as much enthusiasm as a puppy on the beach.

Do yourself a favour, buy it immediately (the book, that is, not the beach or the puppy!).

For us, the moment our holiday changed from “how many tropical fish can we see?” to “how can we have an awesome family holiday when it’s bucketing down?”, I knew we had a choice. Either let constraints ruin our holiday or take our constraint and make it beautiful.

And that’s what we did.

We may not have snorkelled in TGUBR, but we rafted in the rain, danced in the deluge, saw rare beauty in the rainforest, and turned our constraint into a truly magical (albeit slightly damp) holiday.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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