The Power of Limitations

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“Play isn’t a mindless escape from boring reality.”

In Ian Bogost’s 2016 book Play Anything, he writes that “Play is what happens when we accept limitations, narrow our focus, and—consequently—have fun.” Bogost reminds us that play shouldn’t always be perceived as childish or incongruent to our professional personas. Instead, play becomes a stimulus to try, learn and fail – all elements essential to professional and personal growth. Additionally, his view on the power of limitations in play offers an interesting parallel to business.

Account professionals encounter limitations all the time. For example, we aim to solve our clients’ business problem but are hindered by limited budget or direction. Or, we try to turn short-term projects into long-term partnerships while navigating politics, external market shifts and competitive agency pressures. Within these limitations, we strive to lead our agency teams and client partners to the best outcomes.

But thanks to expanding consumer choice, an ever-evolving communications landscape and disruptive technology, account professionals and their agency teams have more ways than ever to solve problems and come up with solutions. That said, whether it’s evaluating media channels, prioritizing digital product enhancements or building targeted marketing programs, how can we know we’re taking the right action versus the challenge?

As the old adage goes, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

Bogost says that “limitations can narrow our focus” and that to have fun is compelling. In order to combat the vast sea of choice in relation to solutions, what if we added artificial boundaries to help narrow our approach? What if we used this philosophy when faced with overwhelming choice? Below are a few ways limitations can help agency teams narrow their focus:

Identify the rules of the game: Instead of being overwhelmed by rules, regulations, political realities or project limitations, identify them and embrace them for what they really are, guideposts towards a realistic solution. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you blindly accept reality, especially if you have the power to make a positive change. It just means that you have a starting point that narrows your initial focus towards action.

Defamiliarization: In his book, Bogost talks about the process of defamiliarization, willing ourselves to see the potential for meaningfulness and engagement that we hadn’t noticed before. When you have some basic limitations identified, defamiliarize yourself when analyzing them. Look for meaningfulness in the details that you would normally pass by. For example, does a tight timeframe mean that you can avoid lengthy stakeholder reviews or complex approval processes? Find the positives in the negatives.

Create artificial constraints: If you don’t have a deadline, create one. If you haven’t been given KPIs, define them. If you have too many points of view, narrow them. Often, we have way too much information to process and can’t see the brilliance from the noise. Create artificial constraints to supplement the true constraints previously identified. Give yourself rules when creating a solution.

Play: Often the hardest part of solving a problem is just getting started. Following the steps above, you’ve now given yourself and your team the gift of focus. By discovering all available rules, defamiliarizing yourself from previously ignored factors and setting necessary artificial constraints, you now have a “playground” to engage with. The rules of the game have been set and now it’s time to find a way to win within those rules. Use this tapered view to brainstorm solutions and decide on a plan of attack.

Another well-respected and renown personality understood the power of limitations in solving problems. TV’s MacGyver (both the original version and the current reboot) finds ingenious ways to use limited resources and get out of jams. That’s what you are doing. You’ve searched the broom closet you’re trapped in, rediscovered the immediate value of that can of spray paint, and challenged yourself to escape in under ten minutes. How? You’ve created a flame thrower to burn through the locked door. In your business case, it’s obviously not about being trapped in a broom closet, it’s more about driving an increase in annual prospect conversions.

Use limitations to your benefit. Find ways to narrow your focus towards a solution. And then, once that solution is implemented, learn from it and use that information to narrow your focus when solving future problems.

To learn more about this intriguing topic, I encourage you to read Ian Bogost’s Play Anything.

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