Crash Course in Constraints

Constraints often feel like a tricky word to understand or do anything about. In this article I want to break down what a constraint is and what some options are for dealing with them.

Constraints are Limits

When we get right down to it, a constraint is a limit on a thing. A car’s distance it can drive has a constraint from its gas tank. What you can purchase has a constraint on your finances.

Now while that might seem obvious, in a work context it gets a little harder to pin down because many of the constraints are artificially created. What I mean by that is that the limits exist because everyone believes in them.

Want an example? Quite regularly companies will claim they don’t have budget for something. That is the constraint. However, quite often the money exists but they don’t want to allocate it in that particular way. In other words, the money is there but in the processes and ways the company works they are creating a constraint around a budget even if the money exists.

Now, in some regards this makes sense. Many of use create budgets which work as constraints. Even though we may have money available, our budgets force us to limit its use in specific ways.

The Good and Bad of Constraints

Alright, so if a constraint is a limit, that can very much feel like we don’t have the resources we need to accomplish our goal.

While this is true in a sense, it is not true in another.

When we feel the pinch of say a budget constraint we are presented with a set of choices. One of those choices is to see all the things we cannot do because we lack the budget due to a constraint. Another option is to come up with different options within the budget.

For example, lets say in a household budget there is a pretty heavy constraint on money used for recreation. The first way of looking at it focuses on all the things you can’t do because your budget doesn’t allow those things to happen. No movies or concerts or things like that. The second way to look at it might involve options like more personal time with friends or rewatching a movie you have or a small dinner together.

Another way to look at it is that we can see constraints in a way where we have to get creative on ways to handle it. In other words, given the right conditions a constraint can lead to innovation.

But…

Even if constraints can lead to innovation it doesn’t mean that it will. There is a bigger topic around creating what is commonly called an “Enabling” constraint. These are the constraints that are often viewed as challenges worth overcoming, or ones that spur innovation.

To begin with, we can frame constraints differently. Instead of pointing out what we can’t do, we frame around what options exist. In the beginning the options won’t feel as good as the unconstrained one, but that changes with practice.

Another aspect to consider is what the expectation is for people who have to live with the constraint. For example, if a constraint is set around timeline is the expectation that the group complies or is governed by it innovation won’t happen. On the other hand if the constraint is handed to a group as a challenge, they can rise to meet it and ultimately innovate or break the constraint.

Obviously this is a subtle thing to accomplish, but if you’re doing something like Scrum you have ample opportunity with sprints, stories, and all the numerous constraints that are there by default. Here’s an obvious one, the daily stand up has a 15-minute constraint. How many times do we view that constraint as taking away from us compared to a challenge about what we can do within it?

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