Early in my career constraints were something that filled me with dread. They spoke only to what I could not do. They held me back. They left me bound and unable to see a path forward.

Constraints are all around us. They are simply a boundary or limit placed around some aspect of an environment. Deadlines are probably the most commonly use constraint. I have experienced numerous times the hard, “Critical,” deadline that the team has to meet. The fear of what happens if we miss our deadline or violate the constraint was gripping. Things felt panicked and rushed to try to squeeze things in. I would find myself in a sea of micromanagers, doing what they did best. I would watch people I had learn to respect and care for struggle, suffer, and fail.

Then magically, the day of the deadline arrived and left. And without ceremony, without acknowledging what had happened, a new deadline was set.

This has happened every place I have ever worked, without exception.

The list goes on and on for these constraints: Budget, staff, training, marketing, manager’s directive, legacy systems, defined scope, title, position, and so on.

Constraints suck.

But wait…

In agile we talk about iterations or sprints a lot. We talk about timeboxing things a lot. Aren’t these constraints as well? Are they not artificial deadlines? Shouldn’t they be holding us back, or leaving people bound and unable to see a path forward?

What about start ups, they don’t have money, but accomplish incredible things. How does budget seem to not be an issue here, but is for others?

What gives?

The difference

A key difference between the times when constraints seem to prevent or restrict us from when they seem to deeply challenge us and provide focus is this:

We started asking, what can you do instead of saying what you cannot do.

Back to deadlines. Most of the hair-raising deadlines that I first talked about are communicated in a simple directive that goes something like, “We have a hard deadline to get all of this work done.” The whole frame and language of it is communicating what cannot happen. Which is to say, you cannot miss the deadline or scope. These are restrictions.

In an agile iteration or sprint, on the other hand, healthy teams go into their planning for an iteration saying something more like, “Our sprint will end… What can we accomplish by then?” This has a peculiar effect of challenging the team to get creative around how they can work within those boundaries.

The same is true for budgets and start ups. They tend to have a very positive outlook around what they can accomplish given they have no resources to accomplish anything. And again, they go into it with the same line of questioning, “What can we do without a budget?” They get really creative. They see the challenge and respond.

Not done yet…

It isn’t enough, however, to go into a conversation and just re-frame the same constraint. That won’t likely have the intended impact.

The next missing ingredients take us to dark territory.

Our first landmark in that territory is respect. The bottom line is, we must respect the people and how they will handle the constraint if we are to frame it correctly. Without this underlying respect, asking, “What can we do?” will be hollow and more than likely people will see right through it.

If that sounds easy, consider the leap some of us may have to make from when we have used deadlines to coerce performance to truly respecting the same people.

The second landmark in this territory is ownership. I don’t think asking, “What can we do,” to a team without simultaneously giving them the freedom to try is gonna work. I hope that’s obvious. To ask the question in a way that enables teams to address the constraint, we have to be able to ask it as though we are handing the One Ring to Frodo. We have to see what they can do with that condition.

Where does that leave us? Give ownership and respect to the teams and groups in their constraints. Frame them as, what can you do instead of, what you cannot do. Watch those limitations, restrictions, and boundaries become the fuel for innovation. Allow ourselves to be surprised.