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Stretch

By Scott Sonenshein

HarperCollins, 283 pages, $35.99

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Why do some people and organizations succeed with so little while others fail with so much?

That's an important question, not normally discussed in management literature, which Scott Sonenshein, a professor of management at Rice University, poses at the start of his new book. The answer begins with understanding we have bought into a false premise: Having more resources equals getting better results. That's not necessarily true. Some people keep chasing resources. They always want more, to achieve more. But they fail to use their existing resources fully and can be overtaken by others with fewer resources but the ability to employ those more effectively.

You may have met such individuals, or corporations. You will see an example next time you or a friend have a Yuengling beer in hand. A small brewer in a world of giants, it chose not to chase greater resources by selling to a competitor or trying to grow by acquisitions. Instead, it used existing resources – people, plants and money – shrewdly, and has been extremely successful on the bottom line. Stroh's, on the other hand, with a similar pedigree, sought massive growth, becoming the third-largest U.S. beer producer. But it went belly up.

Prof. Sonenshein calls Stroh's approach "chasing" – focusing on acquiring resources and overlooking how to expand what's on hand. Yuengling's approach is summed up by the title of his book: Stretch. People and organizations that routinely stretch ask what more they can do with what they have rather than obsessing about what's missing. If you were a fan of the television show MacGyver, you were watching a master stretcher, who used what was at hand to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Chasing flows from a "grass is always greener" mentality. That's literal in California, where billionaires spend enormous sums to truck in water to keep their lawns green when water restrictions are in place. "When chasing, it's easy to get caught up in pursuing things because others have or want them. As resources get scarcer, chasing becomes more difficult, expensive, stressful, and even impractical," he notes.

Social media accentuates chasing. Research has shown the more time people spent on Facebook the worse they felt, and that seems to be a result of making social comparisons. Chasing also degrades our ability to stretch. It blinds us from seeing the possibilities that lies in the resources at hand.

He illuminates four critical elements of a stretching mindset. The first is psychological ownership, believing that we control our resources and then working with them in expansive and inventive – MacGyver – ways.

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Second, the constraints we encounter can liberate us to find new opportunities. Frugality can be helpful as well, nudging us toward better results. William Oberton is CEO of a company that excels at stretching, Fastenal, the world's leading supplier of industrial supplies – where second-hand furniture is used in the executive offices. He says, "We're not afraid to spend. We're afraid to waste money on something that won't improve the business." Finally, stretchers appreciate and see potential in resources that others overlook.

It helps to ensure diversity of experiences on your team, since that will lead to multiple ways of viewing problems. Be aware that modern division of labour, with increased specialization, can narrow our outlook, so you must step outside your own world and embrace diverse notions. Stretch your mind to stretch your possibilities.

Careful planning is considered a prerequisite to action these days, but he suggests it can prevent learning by doing. "When we plan, we're not acting but delaying our actions and speculating about a future that may or may not exist," he writes.

He tells of Hungarian soldiers, lost in the Alps, who navigated back to safety when one of them found a map in his pocket. The map was of a different set of mountains, the Pyrenees, but it worked. Academic Karl Wieck says that story shows when our bearings are lost "any map will do."

This book is a map of the terrain for stretching. It nicely mixes anecdotes, research and Prof. Sonenshein's advice to answer the question he asks at the beginning and help you to substitute stretching for chasing.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter.

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