Constraints don’t have to be constraining

By Laura Huang

There’s an exercise I used to do with students in my entrepreneurship course: I would give each team of students an envelope with $5 inside, and tell them that this was money they could use as start‑up capital to create any type of profit-generating venture. At the end of one week, they would present their venture to the rest of the class, and reveal how much they had earned in profit.

The goal of the session was for students to hone their entrepreneurial instincts by trying to identify opportunities. But which teams made the most in profit? Those that didn’t use the $5 at all.

We have a tendency to focus on constraints, and to think of them as a kind of adversity. But, in fact, constraints can be a form of advantage. When we own our constraints, magical things can happen—and the constraints can become tools to propel us forward.

So what kinds of companies did these teams who ignored the $5 and, therefore, saw themselves as “constraint agnostic” are?

One of my favorites was a team who hosted a “moving dinner:” each course—appetizers, main course and dessert—was at a different location, with a different set of people. Participants paid a flat fee in advance, which covered the preset menus that my students had arranged with each establishment. The students kept the profits. The problem that they had identified and aimed to solve? Networking isn’t always fun, and meeting new people isn’t always easy.

Constraints are inevitable, yes. But rather than accepting them, we can discover and pay attention to them. We can recognize their value. In many ways, we need them. When we notice constraints but we don’t let them define our possibilities, we can actually flip them to create an advantage.

A few weeks after the course ended, I received an invitation from one of my students: The moving dinner had been such a success that they decided to make it a monthly event. They were in the process of coordinating the next one, and they wanted me to attend. They charged me the discounted price of $5—and I had a wonderful time.

Laura Huang is an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.

Image credits: Skypixel |


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