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How to Achieve More with Less

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You may not want to hear this, or even believe it, but less really is more in a lot of important and useful ways. Researchers who have focused on management and psychology have proved it in ways that provide some surprising lessons. In both business and life, having access to more money, more stuff, more help and/or more time can reduce our odds of achieving our goals. We are particularly likely to hurt our chances of success when we focus on chasing more resources, rather than on squeezing as much as possible out of the resources we have.

Example: In the 1990s, many dot-com companies focused on expanding as quickly as possible, snatching up a lot more market share, adding many more employees and securing more and more venture capital dollars. After the dot-com stock market boom went bust, a University of Maryland professor discovered that most of the Internet companies that survived had bucked that conventional wisdom and had not prioritized getting big fast.

These survivors had figured out how to survive with less while their get-big-fast competitors knew how to solve various problems only by throwing money at them—a strategy that stopped working when the money dried up. Pets.com, which spent almost $12 million on advertisements to generate $619,000 in sales in its first year, ended up failing…while WrestlingGear.com, which targeted a niche market and made money on each transaction, is still around 20 years later.

The idea that you literally can do more with less can be very helpful in your private life, not only in business. Here are five ways to exploit the hidden advantages of having limited resources or tight deadlines…overcome the hidden challenges of abundance…and remind ourselves to get the most out of what we already have, rather than devote excessive time and effort to acquiring more…

Impose artificial limitations. If your budget and time constraints for a vacation, a purchase or a project are the same as always, the options you eventually settle on likely will be the same as always, too. We feel constrained when we face limitations beyond what we normally face, but overcoming these limitations can lead to creative ­breakthroughs.

Example: In 1957, famed editor ­Bennett Cerf challenged an author to write a children’s book using just 50 unique vocabulary words. The author was Theodor Geisel—better known as Dr. Seuss—and the book he wrote was Green Eggs and Ham, which would become one of the 20th century’s best-selling children’s books.

It wasn’t great despite Cerf’s word limitation—it was great because of the artificial restriction, which allowed Geisel to focus on using the words he did have available as creatively as possible, leading to a book that was unlike anything that came before it.

What to do: Experiment with imposing dauntingly low budgets, frighteningly close deadlines and other restrictions even when you do not need to. Challenge yourself to come up with creative ways to overcome these hurdles.

There will be times when the limitations do not lead to helpful results—when that happens, you can revert to your usual solution. But there also will be times when you uncover clever new solutions that you otherwise would have missed. As a bonus, you will improve your ability to cope when time and resources truly are limited, a skill that could prove to be vital at some future date.

Mentally deconstruct your resources into their component parts to uncover unconventional uses. Try this thought experiment: Imagine that you must fasten two heavy steel rings together using only a candle and a match. How do you do it?

Most people presented with this challenge come up with the same strategy—light the candle and drip the hot wax onto the rings, sealing them together. But that doesn’t work—candle wax is not strong enough to hold heavy steel rings together. A better solution reveals itself only if you stop thinking of the candle as just a candle and also see it for its component parts—wax and a wick. The wick is a piece of string that can be used to tie the rings together.

Most people fail to think up this solution because the human brain falls into a “functional fixedness” trap—it sees only the common use of resources.

What to do: A researcher at University of Massachusetts developed a simple way to overcome functional fixedness. When you struggle to find a solution to a problem given the resources available, reconsider each of your resources one by one in terms of component parts and ask yourself, How can each of these separate parts be used to help solve the problem?

When you need creative ideas and are short on time, do mindless work. A deadline is approaching fast, and you have to come up with a great idea. What do you do? In fact, the best strategy might be to stop brainstorming and use some of your limited time to instead do a boring chore—even though this means adding a task to your to-do list when there already is little time to spare.

Here’s why: Research has shown that people are significantly better at coming up with creative ideas under tight deadlines when they also perform tasks that are not mentally challenging. That’s because the human mind is at its most creative when it is presented with a problem but then allowed to wander. When we need to come up with a creative idea fast, we tend to focus too much, inhibiting that wandering. Tackling a chore that does not require much brainpower can distract our focus just enough that the mind regains its freedom to wander.

This is similar to the familiar advice to “sleep on a problem,” only faster and more effective—your sleeping brain might indeed come up with creative solutions, but it also might forget them before you wake.

What to do: Mow the lawn…fold the laundry…send out invoices. Pick a chore that you can almost but not quite perform on autopilot, and do this even though it seems like you don’t have time for it right now.

Activate your “action mode.” When you have lots of time to get something done, it’s easy to get stuck in a planning mode, thinking through each available option again and again. But there inevitably comes a point where additional planning does not lead to any greater odds of success…and sometimes there is so little useful information that even careful planning is mainly guesswork.

At these times, the best thing to do is to stop planning and start actually doing. But if you’re a deliberate planner by nature, this can feel uncomfortable and irresponsible, and you might be tempted to continue planning instead.

What to do: Think back to times when you acted like a “doer,” a person who takes action promptly. Then think back to times when you finished one project and did not wait long to start a new one…and then think back to times when you decided to do something and were so excited about it that you could not wait to get started. Research shows that reflecting on these three things often can shift people from “planning mode” to “action mode” in just minutes.

Identify dormant resources. Most people (and organizations) have potentially valuable resources that currently seem to have no value because they are sitting dormant. There are attics, closets and warehouses full of unused supplies…­résumés full of unused skills…and address books full of contacts that haven’t been called in years. Unfortunately, once a resource becomes dormant, it tends to remain dormant because people turn their attention to acquiring new resources.

What to do: Start a list of the ­resources you have but have stopped using. Entries should include both physical supplies and tools…as well as unused skills, knowledge and connections. Ask friends and relatives to help you identify resources you have that you might have missed.

For each entry on this list, brainstorm about ways the resource could be used to advance one of your current objectives. Dig out this list, and give it a fresh read whenever you think you do not have sufficient resources to achieve a goal.

Example: If you have a onetime acquaintance who held a position in local government, he/she could be contacted to help you sort out a problem that you are having with your town office.

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Source: Scott ­Sonenshein, PhD, the Henry Gardiner Symonds Professor of Management at Rice University in Houston. He is author of Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less—and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined. ScottSonenshein.com Date: March 1, 2018
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