Re-thinking constraints

500 words. That’s all I’m giving myself to make my point. Here it is: constraints can be your friend. Limits on time, money, people, resources can channel your creative energy, drive innovation and focus.

The seed: I’ve been listening to podcasts about entrepreneurship (Venture Voice, Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders), and hearing a recurring thread: company finds itself in a terrible pinch, money is running out, strategic options disappear, employees leave -- suddenly the start-up turns a corner to success. Why would this happen with such frequency?

There’s a "Theory of Constraints", originated from the Operations novel (there aren’t many of those) "The Goal" by Eliyahu Goldratt. The concept goes:

"In any complex system at any point in time, there is most often only one aspect of that system that is limiting its ability to achieve more of its goal. For that system to attain any significant improvement, that constraint must be identified and the whole system must be managed with it in mind."

Which is to say: constraints limit performance. I’m not so sure, especially in service-based businesses. Absence of constraints can be the problem. Here’s why:

  • More begets more...confusion, chaos, complexity. You’ve probably seen the inefficiencies of big teams and the lack of focus of big-company strategies (Microsoft strategy presentation). Lost in the complexity is attention to detail, clarity of mission, an appreciation of the value of resources.
  • More options lead to analysis paralysis. Did you know there are six kinds of Snickers now?! I am often too dazzed by my candy bar options to choose. A constraint-less world offers too many options -- and leads to a fear of sub-optimizing. So we fall back on...
  • Status quo decisions. When a manager’s marketing budget goes up, the tendency is to just increase spend in proven channels -- rather than experimenting with something new. More options pushes us toward our affinity to avoid risk -- at the cost of innovation.

Which isn’t to say I won’t take more money or more help any day. My concern is about managing the downsides of more:

  • More waste
  • Less creativity
  • Less attention to detail and quality
  • Less focus and clarity
  • Less pride in accomplishment

Isn’t it worth seeking out constraints in some situations -- even if imposed artifically? A few ideas that we are going to try:

  • Create artificial deadlines with teeth. Something real and bad has to happen when a project extends beyond a deadline. What if a team had to write a document describing why a deadline was missed?
  • Limit design freedom with less space, fewer colors, fewer tabs and buttons. At Juice, we recently found that we had some fairly radical limitations on the space available to create a web interface. What started as an annoyance helped us take some great steps forward.
  • Cap team size. What if you limited every team to five or fewer people? Just imagine the efficiencies and focus -- and all the people you could legitimately exclude!
  • Try without money. What if you had no marketing budget for a new product? I bet most of the companies that succeed with viral marketing are those that need to. Big companies admire the power of using customers as a salesforce -- but advertising is so much more well understood.
  • Fewer words. How about limiting blog posts to 500 words; PowerPoint lists to five items; and proposals to three pages? As Mark Twain said: "I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one."

There is pain in fitting into constraints. And it isn’t always worth it. But there can be pay-offs in innovation, efficiency and focus. (Darn, 618 words. I’m off to my 118 minutes of "Dancing with the Stars".)

Others’ thoughts on this subject: