The Upside of Constraints…

You can’t always get what you want…

It’s a reality of life, and whether we like it or not, there are often constraints in the world that we have to work with.

When we rail against the system or the reality in front of us, we make and keep ourselves fragile. I wrote about this in a recent newsletter here.

So rather than, struggling and creating suffering for ourselves when faced with the challenge  of constraints, might there be a way that we can leverage them for creativity, innovation, and better performance?

What are constraints?

The Theory of Constraints (TOC) assumes that there is always at least one constraint present that prevents a ‘system’ – an individual, team or organization – from making progress or achieving goals.

Constraints can be internal – where the capacity of the system can’t meet external demands, or external – where the system has more capacity than demands require (not something I’m hearing right now!).

Internal constraints certainly reflect the ‘more with less’ challenges that leaders are facing – whether that’s time, money or resources, or perhaps what I’m hearing most right now, talent and personal energy.

However, I also see leaders place constraints on their teams because of their own aversion to risk, judgements of others or primal world views, which can lead to a cascade of biases that are then reinforced and amplified by confirmation bias whereby we pay attention and give more weight to information  that supports our beliefs and reinforces our position.

This specific type of internal constraint is broken through self-awareness and a willingness to let go of ego and into service of the work to be done.

Leveraging constraints

Can we really use constraints to our advantage?
The short answer is ‘Yes!’.

Rather than being an obstacle to better performance, research exploring the effects of constraints on creativity and innovation, and found that individuals, teams, and organizations actually benefit from some level constraints; it’s only when constraints become too high that they stifle creativity and innovation.

Here are three ways to use constraints to your advantage:

  1. Time and Task

Constraints on what needs to be achieved by when means that whilst there are clear expectations, the ‘how’ is open to creativity and innovation. This kind of autonomy supportive environment has been shown to support motivation, meaning and high performance.

  1. Constructive Conflict

Use conflicting constraints – where there are two or more seemingly conflicting outcomes that appear impossible to deliver together — to force a fundamental re-evaluation of the solution space. For example, when designing what became the Lexus line, Ichiro Suzuki, Toyota’s chief engineer, stipulated that the new car needed to be faster, lighter, and more fuel efficient than existing luxury sedans.

The constraints were clearly competing. Making a car faster usually meant having a bigger, heavier engine; making it lighter without compromising power meant stripping out luxury that was essential for this segment. So, the Lexus team returned to fundamentals and re-evaluated their most basic assumptions about how to build a car. Alongside tens of smaller new ideas, they designed and built a first-of-its-kind aluminium engine that made the car 120 pounds lighter, improving weight and fuel efficiency, thereby delivering on a seemingly impossible demand.

  1. Share the Load
    Whether the constraint is time, budget, resources or your internal preferences, judgements or primals, distinguishing signal from noise will always be challenging. Engaging peers and teams to share their perspective and points of view is valuable. However for them to so this without fear or embarrassment requires sufficient psychological and psychosocial safety so they can have productive conversations fights about how best to navigate the constraints to your advantage.

So the next time you’re faced with constraints in the work that you’re doing, rather than resisting and struggling with them because they’re not what you want, perhaps you can use them to get just what you need.

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