Communicating strategy as constraints

A click up from a plan is communicating strategy as constraints. When plans are constantly stymied with change, we start seeking the means to describe this change in terms of invariants. We climb up the abstraction ladder to see if there’s less flux up there. Constraints are usually what we encounter next.

An easy way to grok constraints-based strategy communication is to look at sports. Sports are games with well-defined constraints: what’s allowed and not allowed, how one is rewarded or punished while playing. Like structural beams of a house, constraints frame the problem space.  If the constraints are stable and well-rounded, we humans are exceedingly good at discerning, adopting them — and adapting to them. Constraints also serve as generative sources of plans. Instead of having just one plan that is created each time, a good coach will have a whole playbook of plan templates drilled into their teams. When the game begins, there is no one Big Plan: instead, plans emerge and evolve from the playbook’s templates. My friend Alex Russell had this really nice “beat saber block” analogy. When the team communicates their strategy in terms of constraints, plans — like blocks from that VR game — materialize a short distance out, while being informed by a larger arc of the story, framed by constraints.

That’s what makes communicating strategy as constraints so much more effective than producing plans — and also a lot more challenging. To communicate them, a leader needs to first devise a set of constraints that capture the nature of the game they want to be played. This requires strategic awareness, rigor, and patience. Though my inner game designer momentarily rejoices at the opportunity, it’s incredibly difficult in my experience. Instead of inventing a new game, this effort is mostly about inferring some semblance of stability out of the churning stew of the environment. As a result, most constraint sets come out dismally misshapen in their first iteration.

Usually, they are leaky. For example, imagine that I provided a constraint that the score is only awarded when the hockey puck crosses the goal line, but forgot to specify the size of the goal. It is fairly easy to see how an overly clever team might be tempted to bolster their defenses by shrinking the goal to be smaller than the puck — this may or may not be a true story from my childhood.

They also tend to be either too specific or too broad. Go too specific, and you’re back in the plans territory. Go too broad, and the constraints are no longer useful. In one of the dimmer moments of my career, I once proclaimed that the goal of our team would be to “not screw it up” in the next year. Great! What does that even mean, oh fearless leader?! 

An experienced leader — just like a seasoned coach — usually carries a playbook that allows them to sketch out a decent initial set of constraints for any team. However, I found that getting constraints to the point where they’re stable and well-rounded is something that can only happen by the team collectively participating in refining the rules of the game by which they play.

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