February 10, 2017
Editor's Choice: Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less—and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined
Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less—and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined by Scott Sonenshein, Harper Business, 304 pages, $28.99, Hardcover, February 2016, ISBN 9780062457226
Business is a battle for the exploitation of resources—natural, human, financial, intellectual, or otherwise. And, of course, we all want more to work with. We often believe we need more in order to be really successful. But what if what we really need is more resourcefulness? That is a topic Scott Sonenshein takes on in his new book, Stretch:
Stretching is a learned set of attitudes and skills that comes from the simple but powerful shift from wanting more resources to embracing and acting on the possibilities of our resources already in hand.
I can almost hear the groan as I write this. Haven’t most of us been stretched too thin for far too long already, working with less staff and smaller budgets since the great recession forced them upon us a decade ago? Isn’t it about time we ramp up and reinvest whatever resources we can bring to bear on our most pressing challenges? After all, as Sonsnshein tells us, our intuition tells us:
Having More Resources = Getting Better Results
And yet, this is not always the case. His opening example is Yuengling, the fourth largest brewery in America. We’ve seen firsthand here in Milwaukee the shifts in the brewery business. The Pabst and Schlitz plants sat empty for decades, and are now being repurposed into office and residential space. Miller has changed international ownership and been merged so many times in the past two decades that it’s hard to keep up with who owns what, and what beer it actually makes and distributes. The trend in brewing has been to either sell yourself to a larger brewer, or buy up smaller brands and grow into a competitive international conglomerate. Dick Yuengling did neither.
As competitor Stroh's went on an acquisition and expansion binge in the 1970s and ’80s, he was solidifying its base and core. Rather than try to expand into new markets, this fifth generation owner was focused on improving operations and expanding production within his existing facilities. And as Strohs contracted under the weight of the debt it incurred in its attempt to expand, Yuengling purchased its Tampa factory at a deep discount, upgraded its outdated equipment and empowered its employees to make decisions on how to make it more productive. It’s a classic Tortoise and the Hare tale, and the first example of many that demonstrates how pursuing more can leave us with less, and why people with less often end up owning more. And it all leads to a (perhaps deceptively) simple equation:
Better Use of Resources = Getting Better Results
I say “deceptively” simple because, like so many of its contemporaries, Stretch doesn’t offer a numbered set of easy steps to take. Rather, it offers a shift in the way we think, from a chasing mindset to a stretching one. It will help us elevate our expectations to shape performance, how to react to the unexpected, and use what you have in unexpected ways. It is holistic in the sense that it asks you to use what skills you have to live a full life, rather than bifurcate it into “work” and “home.”
A big part of overcoming the division of our identities—and, for that matter, any split between resources—is to understand that we often frame different resources as involving trade-offs: competitive relationships versus friendly relationships, routinized work versus creative work, or work identities versus personal identities. Stretchers find ways of integrating different resources by building pathways that connect the seemingly unconnectable.
Stretch teaches us why taking ownership of our projects and resources is so important, why we should embrace constraints, and the importance of being frugal even when we have abundant resources at our disposal. He borrows Claude Lévi-Strauss’s concept of engineering versus bricolage, that rather than building an ever-bigger toolbox or waiting for the perfect tool for a specific job, we should look for what is available around us now to just get the job done. He even encourages us to ask “what could I do if I didn’t have this resource” to see how we can declutter our proverbial toolbox. Doing so, argues Sonenshein, can make a dramatic difference in how we run our organizations, and in our overall enjoyment of life:
We would end up living a very different type of life, one I’ll argue is much more enjoyable because it calms us with what we already have and teaches us to use it in better ways. That’s why there’s a lot more to stretching than simply being resourceful in overcoming constraints. It’s an outlook on life that influences not just how we solve problems but also how we regularly obtain success and live better.
That may sound lofty, but it is a practical approach to innovation that is more inward looking than out. Sonenshein may be a Professor of Management at Rice University, but he is also a social scientist, and brings an understanding of the fundamental psychological tendency to compare ourselves to others, and to use up whatever resources are available to us to compare more favorably. But the game of one-upsmanship is ultimately unwinnable. We may think that if we just stick to the formula that has made us successful, we’ll stay successful and attain more success as we gather and bring more resources to bear. But success is always fleeting if we pursue it in familiar ways, and resources always shift in value.
[A]s we stay the course, the world around us constantly changes: jobs evolve, customers’ tastes advance, competitors grow or shrink, families age, and technology shifts. In these situations, our once valuable and cherished resources quickly decline in value …
None of this is to say you should not reinvest in your business, add more people, or try to grow your business—simply that you should shift the mindset with which you do so. Figure out how to use what you already have in new and unexpected ways rather than looking for what you need to add or acquire to do so. In fact, look at what you may be able to get rid of in order to accomplish your goals more effectively and easily. Stretch your efforts and imagination instead of chasing new assets and accruing shiny new tools.
Sonenshein explores how a chasing mindset is too focused on social comparison, functional fixedness, and mindless accumulation, how some extra resources help drive improvement while too many lead to complacency and poor results, which often leads to squandering ever more resources trying to improve the situation. He will teach you why it’s important to get outside your area of expertise, to develop a breadth and diversity of experience and an outsider’s mindset to problem solving—both as individuals and as teams—and how to “take your expertise on the road” and apply it to areas outside of your direct discipline.
Finally, Sonenshein helps us understand how important it is to know the fine line between stretching and overstretching, between being resourceful and being cheap, being proactive and being too quick to act, being able to improvise and being unfocused, being able maximize our time and effort without burning the candle at both ends and burning ourselves out.
In a time when shiny new tools are offered up to us almost daily and the culture of ambition is almost cult-like in its grasp on society, perhaps it is time to consider what we can do without, how to be more deliberate and creative with the tools we already have available to us, and begin to stretch instead of chase success.
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.