Enumerating constraints

The process of inferring a set of constraints with which to communicate a strategy can get pretty overwhelming, so I made this handy little framework for enumerating them. It’s not a complete taxonomy, but hopefully it’s generative enough to get started.

When looking for constraints, I use a riff on Lawrence Lessig’s pathetic dot framing. Think of constraints as loosely bunched into four different forces that press from every direction: capabilities, rules, norms, and incentives. Their sum is what defines the game being played.

From the bottom, we are supported — and limited — by our capabilities. These are our team’s strengths and weaknesses and understanding them greatly helps us assess our potential. What is the team’s mix of senior and junior members? How do their collective skills map to the challenge at hand? What are particular things that make this team unique? What are the known failure modes the team might be susceptible to?

At the top, there are rules that are imposed on us by the environment. These could be related to funding or deadlines, or priorities of the larger organization. Market and ecosystem forces also fit in here. A good way to spot these kinds of constraints is to look for things that we perceive as happening regardless of our attempts to control them. These are our threats and opportunities.

Forming the vertical axis, rules and capabilities are in tension with each other. Usually, one acts as a limit to another, establishing dynamic equilibrium. If there’s no such equilibrium between these two, it’s not a game. When listing out rules and capabilities, make sure that the sets feel roughly evenly matched. Otherwise, we might be deceiving ourselves about the nature of the game.

The horizontal axis captures constraints that reflect dynamics within the team. Just like with the game axis, these forces are in tension. If they are mismatched, there is no team.

On one side, there are incentives. Incentives are what drives individual agency within the team. In this bunch, there are constraints that define the reward system for the team. How do the individuals know if they are succeeding or failing? How do they know whether they are progressing along their intended career arc? Are they making the kind of impact that is aligned with the team’s objectives? This one can be tricky. For example, in larger organizations, the incentive structure is commonly imposed centrally, which means that the team leads might find that their objectives are often at odds with that structure (like the “I don’t want to work on this project, because there’s no promo for me in it” case). In such a case, those are better viewed as rules (the top-down arrow), rather than team incentives.

On the other side, there are norms that bind us together. “Bind” is the operative word, because the thing that binds us always acts as a constraint. Cultural norms define what’s acceptable and not acceptable within the team. Norms are tricky, because “culture” has developed a bit of a duality in modern organizations. There’s the norms that we’d like the team to have and there are the norms that exist. If we use this exercise to evangelize the former, we might arrive at communicating a strategy for some other, imaginary team. For example, if we aspire to triage bugs within 24 hours as a team, this is not a constraint. Instead, the constraint is the actual time it takes today — our norm. 

As we enumerate constraints, a picture of the playing field emerges. If our norm is that it takes us 7 days to triage a bug, yet one of the looming threats is our customers consistently finding our support levels lacking, we look to the counterbalancing constraints. For example, there might be incentives or capabilities we underutilize that we could lean onto — and this thinking process leads to generating various plans to accomplish that. Add a solving diverge-converge exercise to pick the best alternative, and now we’re cooking with gas. Shifting from plan-based strategies to constraints-based strategies creates more cognitive load on the team — planning becomes a much more distributed process — but it also dramatically increases the team’s capacity to navigate flux. More importantly, understanding constraints creates a space for team leaders to examine them and mutate them to intentionally change the game.

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