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Are you chasing after resources or stretching the ones you have?

Scarcity doesn’t have to be an obstacle. Rice business professor Scott Sonenshein reveals key questions for leveraging the power of constraints to drive creativity.
August 07, 2017
Stretching Resources


As a social entrepreneur, you’re used to never having enough money or time, lacking the right space, tools, or the biggest team. Your work consists of “making do,” “starting lean,” and “bootstrapping.” Are these the last resort when you’ve run out of options, or are these circumstances of scarcity actually an opportunity to shift into a more creative—and ultimately more impactful—mindset?

In our most recent Master Class, Scott Sonenshein—a professor of business at Rice University and the author of Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less—and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined—reveals how a “stretching” mindset can help you find the value of your resource constraints and become more creative when faced with limited time, money, resources, and expertise. 
A “stretching” mindset is the belief that you can do more with the resources that you already have, rather than “chasing” additional resources in order to do more. People with stretch mindsets consistently reevaluate the value and opportunities of their existing resources, empowering them to act and create in more impactful and sustainable ways.

Scott’s research on a stretching mindset offers practical tools for practicing resourcefulness within constraints. Constraints have a bad reputation, but Scott admonishes that there are hidden opportunities within them. Scott has discovered that constraints actually lead people to be more creative, more engaged, and better problem solvers, by asking:

How can I work not only through the constraints, but actually work better because of the constraint?

Circumstances of scarcity and limitation are inevitable for social entrepreneurs, and with the right attitude, they cultivate innovative thinking.
The rewards of a stretching mindset are accessible to you even when you’re not experiencing resource limitations. At any time, you can harness the value of constraints through questions like those below—by examining the potential opportunities created by scarcity and harnessing them even when you’re experiencing abundance.

What if you had less money?

You’re probably no stranger to funding shortages. But instead of focusing on fundraising strategies, how could you reframe financial constraints to improve the way you work?
If you suddenly had less money, would you double down to do the same things with a tighter budget? It might seem intuitive that a stretching mindset would lead you to stretch your funds, but by Scott’s definition, a stretching mindset would actually prompt you to stop and reconsider all of your organization’s activities.

Ask yourself: 

  • Which activities or offerings create the most impact?
  • What is the most beneficial asset and how can you stretch it even more?
Constraints encourage reflection on what we have, rather than chasing after more and more resources. Constraints give you a clear reason to stop and to change your strategy, a shift that might be hard to make in times of abundance. Deciding to cease an activity is an emotional decision because you have to ignore sunk costs and pivot your strategy. You can learn from that shift by questioning the decisions that were made, and using those insights to make better decisions in the future.
One example of an organization choosing the most impactful services is LifeSpring, a social enterprise that runs a chain of maternity hospitals in India. They specialize in the services required by the most customers: normal deliveries, caesarian sections, and hysterectomies. They don’t put their resources towards infrastructure required by very few customers, who can still be treated at other facilities. As a result, LifeSpring creates access to normal and caesarian deliveries for 30–50% less than other hospitals.
Try making a list of all of your organization’s activities, or every project you work on in your job. Rank them from most to least impactful and then from most to least resource-intensive. What would happen if you removed the last item on the impact list? What would happen if you ceased the most resource-intensive activity? Where can you be more efficient in your use of resources?

What if you had less time?

We can’t create more time, but what’s in our control is how we choose to work in time-constrained situations.
One of Scott’s key findings is that a lot of our time goes to planning, even though planning isn’t always the best use of our time. He has found that acting without a plan—improvising—is a wellspring of creativity for people and organizations. Action is more impactful, and more educational, than advance planning.
A key form of this “jump right in” component in a stretching mindset is prototyping—building a simple, quick mockup or pattern for a product or service, and testing it with your target customers to learn about what does and doesn’t work. Prototyping enables you to use the fewest resources to gain insightful, immediate results.
In order to test potential service delivery mechanisms for a clean water project in Kenya, the design team created a quick name and logo for signs and tshirts, rented a kiosk and a storefront for a single day, and recruited some friends to help prototype three different types of in-person services to see what would be the most effective.
We use this time well because it shifts us from delaying and forces us out into communities and into a mindset of listening and observation—the mindset most conducive to learning and discovery. Try engaging with your target customers from a place of listening and observation: what about your interactions surprises you?

What if you had fewer resources?

What would you do if you needed to operate your organization with fewer employees, fewer facilities, or less equipment?
Jenny Dawson, founder of Rubies in the Rubble, noticed that many fruits and vegetables at her local market were discarded due to cosmetic imperfections. Her company turns this rejected produce into jams and chutneys, both capitalizing on the environmental opportunity to reduce waste and the business opportunity to acquire perfectly fresh and tasty ingredients that would’ve otherwise been thrown away.

When people face scarcity, they give themselves the freedom to use resources in less conventional ways.

When you’re serving a community of people, your customers might actually be a resource that you haven’t considered. If your customers value your product or service, how could you encourage them to become informal ambassadors for your organization? Instead of spending on traditional forms of marketing, could you provide resources or have specific conversations that help your best customers spread word of mouth for your organization?
College Summit is an organization that helps students from under-resourced high schools apply to college. They harness the influence that students have on their peers to drive motivation and skill-building for college applications. By training some of their target population to guide their peers, they found a key resource in the very people they were trying to serve.
With a stretching mindset, you’d start by considering the hidden value in the resources that you already have. This discovery process is part of the true value of resource constraints—having fewer resources will force you to be more attentive, more thoughtful, and more creative in how you could use the resources that you already have. When you have abundant resources, you’re more likely to discard what seems useless.
Make a list of all of your current resources, breaking it down into people, space, and connections/partnerships. Start by removing any one of the things on your list—how could you use your other resources to compensate? Then try removing entire categories of resources. What would your organization do if you didn’t have a central location?

What if you had less expertise, experience, or ability?

You’ve probably heard about Malcolm Gladwell’s ten-thousand-hour rule, which states that expertise or mastery is dependent on at least ten thousand hours of practice. Yet Scott highlights research that suggests this is only true for “high-predictability” activities, like running or music. For low-predictability activities (and many social entrepreneurs would certainly define social impact work this way), practice only accounts for 4% of performance.

As challenges become less predictable—that is, as they become more like what we regularly face in many of our professional and personal efforts—practice doesn’t always make perfect.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that in a situation where you lack expertise, experience, or ability, you should plan-—plan to approach experts, to strategically immerse yourself, and to systematically educate yourself about that unknown field or topic.
A stretching mindset would not necessarily dissuade you from that planning, but it might lead you to consider what value you already have in being an outsider. Sometimes the best feeback comes from people who aren’t as emotionally tied to the project as we are.
During the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, the freezing effects of Arctic waters made the oil almost impossible to remove. The organization tasked with clean-up opened a contest to anyone who could propose a new method for extracting the oil from the water. A chemist in Illinois cracked the problem, with an idea from a summer concrete-pouring job: just as vibration machines keep concrete from hardening, they could keep the oil from freezing and becoming unmanageable.

We’d expect, for example, those with the most chemistry knowledge to outperform other scientists at solving chemistry problems. Surprisingly, the researchers found the opposite. The further the problem was from a person’s expertise, the more likely he or she was to solve it.

What if you had to move your organization to another city or another country? How would you approach your current challenges if you were in the shoes of an accountant, a deep sea diver, or a chef?

From obstacle to obstacle course

In Stretch, Scott discusses the idea of “functional fixedness—an inability to use a resource beyond the traditional approach.”
A stretch mindset overcomes this inability, and instead, enables you to imagine nontraditional approaches to using resources—and to scarcity.
Your constraints and circumstances of scarcity aren’t insurmountable obstacles. They’re actually the obstacle course that is training your brain to respond differently—to be more efficient, more creative, and more resourceful.

Emma Funk

Emma Funk is a former Instructional Design Summer Associate at Acumen where she built online courses to inspire new approaches to tackling poverty. She is an alumna of Brown University, and studied in the Design & Technology program at Parsons School of Design in NYC.