Constraints bring freedom

I don’t know about you, but there is something special about experiences that change your outlook on the world, and these experiences come in many forms. Sometimes they are subtle, and you only realize the bigger impact much later.

For me one of these experiences was reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig. The story has many great qualities, a glimpse into a person’s life while at the same time expressing ideas and beliefs that I found transformative. It’s also one of the few books I put down in disgust as I rejected some of the context of what was shared, but ultimately finished and have come to really appreciate.

One idea presented in the book as part of a story, has stuck with me for quite some time. It is the contrarian idea that constraints can free someone to accomplish a goal. As I recall it, in the book the author talks about asking his students to write about the town they are in, and many of the students have trouble getting started. They aren’t sure where to go or what approach to take. As he works with the students, he keeps reducing the scope of the problem, write about this street, write about this building, finally reducing it to writing about a brick. At that point most of the students have a breakthrough, and are able to progress.

I’ve had similar scoping problems present themselves working with my own teams. They’re given a goal (figure out why the web sight is crashing, design a clustered set of tools) that for them is too big. They have too many options, or too little experience at approaching open ended problems. They flounder, unable to find a point at which they can start to pick away at the problem. Worse still, they might take the problem as a whole, delivering only the “complete” result, which ends up being incoherent and having a long tail between initial belief that it is done, and finally having something to deliver.

Constraints can move an activity from inaction to actionable. By using constraints new perspectives can be gained, and needless choices are eliminated without a thought. Time itself can be a constraint, as more complicated and time consuming choices become untenable. The trick is to pick and add constraints that help produce action. Constraints are also not static. Observe what the constraints produce, reducing or removing constraints that suppress action. A constraint like “it must never fail” may sound great, but in practice is not likely to be achieved, and could demotivate those you are trying to help.

Think of constraints like valves on a pipe. Too open and everything floods and the water isn’t controlled, spewing everywhere, too closed and there’s no water at all.

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