How To Craft A Strong Propelling Question

A Guest Blog Post From Brand ManageCamp Speaker Mark Barden – Author of “A Beautiful Constraint”

One of the attributes of a successful marketer today is to be able to do more with less. And one way to do more with less is to “make constraints beautiful” — to take the very real limitations and disadvantages you have and find the opportunity in them.

It’s best to do this proactively. Don’t avoid your constraints embrace them. Harness them to your biggest ambitions, and put them in service of helping you meet, even exceed your goals.

The start point is to create some Propelling Questions by combining your ambitions with your constraints.

Audi asked, “How can we win the race [ambition] when our cars are no faster than anyone else’s [constraint].”

Dr. Seuss had to answer the question, “How can I write a book that first graders can’t put down, using just this list of 224 CVC words.”

Writing questions that appear to be impossible to answer, creates tension, which, when coupled to a positive “can if” mentality, propels us toward completely new kinds of solutions.

Here’s the structure of a Propelling Question and some ideas about how to start.


List your ambitions and your constraints, but make this a creative conversation, too.

It is perfectly fine to have a simple growth target as your ambition, but sit and reflect with your team about other, fresher ways to think about and define the ambition, ways that might open minds to new kinds of ideas.

In 1923, Coca-Cola said they wanted to be always “within an arms reach of desire” which helped drive them beyond the fountain and into vending machines.

Warby Parker’s ambition is about impact: they not only want to sell a lot of eyewear, but to “transform the industry.”

Chipotle has ambitions of quality: to produce “food with integrity.”

And Zappos has ambitions of experience: “to deliver happiness.”

Each of these creates a clear sense of direction for solutions. Try out a few variations. Don’t be afraid to state some very big ambitions—in our study, we found that increasing ambition in the face of constraint can lead to even more creative solutions. But try some smaller and more specific ones, too.

Then repeat this exercise for your constraints. Let this be a cathartic exercise if you like, listing all the reasons why you will surely fail.

And then couple them together into a number of novel pairs and take a look at what you’ve got. Which seem the most “impossible”? Which scare you? Maybe you should try some can-if thinking with them first? Which seem so fundamental to the business that you immediately see the value in trying to answer them.

There are no right or wrong propelling questions, but some will propel you toward new ideas better than others. Trying them in conjunction with the can-if map (see A Beautiful Constraint) is the only way to find out.

In summary:

  • If you want new ways to accelerate the growth of your business, start by asking new questions: a propelling question that couples bold ambitions to significant constraints, forces you to break out of the tried and true when trying to answer it.
  • Spend time defining the ambitions of your business in fresh, new ways, too. You want growth, of course, but what are all the ways to create that?
  • Once you have your ambitions defined, pair them with constraints. Look for solutions that allow you to meet your ambition using the things that you typically see as limiting.

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