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The Magic of Constraints

December 1, 2020

It is not uncommon that we’ll hear a leader say that they don’t want to constrain their team.

We hear statements such as:

“Every type of idea is on the table.”

“I don’t want to limit their thinking.”

“There is no budget if it’s a great idea.”

Statements like these are said with good intentions, but they are often causing more harm than good.

The team needs a framework so that they can focus their ideas without limiting their creativity.

Here are a few reasons we need constraints:

  1. When a person or team is asked for their innovative ideas they will often feel overwhelmed or stuck in the absence of constraints.
  2. If all ideas are on the table, how could they possibly know if their ideas are actually on the right track?

It would be very frustrating and demotivating for a team to share their favourite and best ideas only to find out that there were actually hidden constraints that they weren’t made aware of and therefore the ideas are shut down.

  1. In the absence of constraints, our minds will take the path of least resistance and therefore generate typical ideas or tweaks to our existing offerings.

Constraints will actually enhance the innovative ideas that are generated, but they need to be framed as challenges to be overcome and not as roadblocks to creativity.

It may seem silly, but sometimes we need to pull the constraints out of our leaders so that they are no longer hidden.

Here are a couple of examples of how that could look:

Budget Constraint:

Leader: “There is no budget constraint if it’s a great idea.”

You: “If we came up with an idea that cost 5 million dollars to implement would that be acceptable?”
Leader: “Well, no. It couldn’t be over $____”

Timeline Constraint:

Leader: “We need to think about the future, if it’s a great idea then any timeline is ok.”

You: “If the new idea took 5 years to build, would that be acceptable?”

Leader: “Well, no. It shouldn’t be more than 2.”

Some of the most common constraints:

  • Budget
  • Timeline
  • People/resources available
  • Regulations to follow
  • Other mandatory specifications of must haves

Lastly there are artificial constraints that we need to watch out for. These are the constraints that are not actually real even though they may feel that way in our minds. This could also be called the “we’ve always done it this way” constraint. It’s difficult, especially if you’ve been in your organization for a number of years to bust through this constraint. To reach the desired level of breakthrough thinking you need to let go of this. To help, it’s good practice to bring in a few people who don’t share the same artificial constraints as the rest of the team. These could be folks from another department or external to the organization altogether. Leverage diversity to break the artificial constraints.

As always, we are happy to chat more and share ideas with you.

-David Moskal

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