You Can’t Always Get What You Want – (But What’s Possible With What You Have?)

keep calmDid Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones have it right when they hit the airwaves in 1969 with -“You can’t always get what you want – you get what you need”? Perhaps the reason the song is now listed as the 100th greatest song of all time is because we can all relate to the lyrics just a little too well. We know how it feels when the things we hoped for don’t eventuate – or even worse, when we’re blindsided by news that shakes us to the core. In these times, it’s often difficult to see the opportunity – but it’s always there if you know how to find it.

In 1997 Saras Sarasvathy of Darden Graduate School of Business set out to explore what separates those who achieve the exceptional and miraculous from the rest in the world of business. Her quest led her to a way of thinking that runs counter to what is taught in most business schools. The best way to describe this different way of thinking is with an anology from the kitchen.

Most business schools focus on a causal approach to business creation and building. It’s akin to choosing a recipe, sourcing the required ingredients, and blending them and cooking them in the prescribed way. If you do this well, you end up with something relatively close to the meal you set out to create. The down sides are – pretty much everybody has the same recipe, if you don’t have the required ingredients there are delays while you source them (if you can), and if your oven breaks down – the intended meal goes on hold or ends up in the rubbish. It’s likely that you end up with toast for dinner. This causal approach is perfectly fine when you’re in a highly predictable environment, or when you’re not trying to create anything truly spectacular, original or artistic.

What Sarasvathy discovered is that the method employed by the real gamechangers was akin to going into the kitchen, looking in the pantry and fridge to see what they had – and creatively and resourcefully blending them together to make the most of what was at their disposal. If the oven broke down midway through the process – they improvised.

This “effectual thinking” is not limited to a few very special people. It can be applied in life and business by anyone, any time. I’ve been applying this thinking style in my own business and life for many years now, and taught it to many people – and here’s some of what I’ve learnt.

It develops an “attitude of gratitude”

When we pay attention to who we already are and what we already have, we develop an attitude of gratitude. We start to see who the people in our life and team are, instead of what they’re not, which allows us to help them work in their strengths and maximise their talents. We start to focus on what can be done, as opposed to what can’t be done. We feel happier, more empowered, and more in control of our own destiny – and we’re a lot more fun and pleasurable to live and work with.

Don’t be “attached” to any one particular outcome

Much of the pain and disappointment we experience in life is the result of being attached to a particular outcome. When we know the general direction we want to go, and the difference we want to make – and take whatever we have and whatever life throws at us to take the biggest step forward that we can – we can achieve more than we ever imagined. How we get there and where exactly “there” is, is not nearly as important as making progress in our chosen direction. When we’re attached to a particular outcome or path it can prevent us from seeing other options and alternatives which may be even better than the ones we hoped for.

When it comes to working with others, give them the room to do things their way as long as it fits with the overall purpose, principles and values.

Lift your head up

The single greatest challenge I see with business leaders today is that they’re focused on “busyness” – not just for themselves, but also for their team. They don’t take the time to look up to see if they’re running in the right direction, or if there’s a shorter, easier, or lower cost path. They keep trying to do even more of what’s familiar and known, and what created success in the past even if it’s not working any more. They’re running faster and faster, feeling sick and tired, slowly going nowhere.

I recently worked with an executive who had just invested over $400k in change management and six sigma specialists focused on the goal of reducing the time taken per call in their call centre. Had they asked a better question such as what can we do with our existing resource to deliver exceptional service – the chances are high that they would have innovated and achieved significantly greater success, more immediately, at lower cost.

Create the space to see possibilities, and ask better questions.

Build muscle

Adaptability, resilience, resourcefulness and creativity are muscles that can build, and grow stronger. If you start this now, the benefits are immediate, and the power is there when you need it most.

Build a habit of asking yourself and your team – what is the biggest step we can take right now, with what we already have or can readily access? As part of the process do an informal “audit” of the resources you have, the networks and people you have access to; the passion, skills and talents of your team; processes or systems that are working brilliantly; market and customer knowledge and understanding, suppliers and intermediaries, and any underutilised assets or unique or latent value that you have.

This process, repeated – not only grows adaptability, resilience, resourcefulness, and creativity – it’s also been proven through neuroscience to grow intelligence. The process unleashes otherwise unimaginable potential and possibilities, your team become not only engaged but enthused – and before you know it, you’re all having a lot more fun and creating a lot more success. And when things turn to custard as they inevitably do at some stage – you have the power to convert uncertainty into opportunity, and your people have the resilience and desire to stick with you and see it through. You’ll also find that resistance to change begins to evaporate, and the need for traditional change management methods dissipates.

I recently applied the principles of effectuation using this question as part of a broader framework and process to a new approach to help a client grow sales. The client originally asked me to deliver some sales training and coaching for her team, and I thank her for having the courage to try a new and untested approach. By the end of the process she was absolutely blown away by what her team were both willing and able to contribute, how engaged they were in the process and the business, and the extent to which she’d underestimated them.

Boost to sustainability

When we focus on starting with what we already have, we can do more with less. It reduces costs, and reduces wastage. It’s good for people, planet and profits!

In a nutshell…

Coming back to where we started with the words of the immortal “Rolling Stones”. Yes, it’s true, you can’t always get what you want, but you may end up with even better if you believe it’s possible. You can start right here, right now, with what you have. You and your team are already alchemists. Learning the skills and accessing the tools of the trade are all you probably need to create some magic. As the Dalai Lama said – “Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.”

About the Author…

Lisa McCarthy (M.Comm) is the creator of the Optimal Agility methodology. She is the driving force behind the vision and strategy for oAi, providing leadership and direction for partners and teams across the network. Through her speaking, coaching, corporate training & private consulting services, CEOs, executives and teams quickly discover new possibilities and opportunities, and develop the desired adaptations in their culture and organisations that counteract the rapid market and environmental shifts that besiege them.

Her areas of expertise and interest include business agility and adaptiveness, entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship, innovation, effectuation, management innovation, personal development, human potential, blue economy, leadership and coaching. Email:

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