Embracing Constraints

This post originally appeared November 18, 2011 on BetterProjects.net

Whenever you hear the word ‘constraint’, your mind is probably like mine and you picture a set of handcuffs. You want to do something for your stakeholder, but because of some limitation, you are unable to deliver to them what they really need.

If you’re passionate about what you do, this likely frustrates you. What you really want, more so than anything else, is to exceed their expectations, delivering them the most perfect solution in the world. When you are unable to do that, you probably feel some resentment, not toward your stakeholder or yourself but to whoever imposed that constraint on you.

But it occurred to me during my drive home today that maybe we’ve all got the wrong image of constraints in our heads. Maybe, instead of bemoaning the limitations that constraints put on us, maybe we should learn to embrace constraints as a good thing. Don’t believe me? Lets think about a couple types of constraints and see if a shift in viewpoint could change the way we approach a situation.

Lets say that one of your company’s rivals just released a spectacular new product that has instantly made your company’s products look obsolete. The finance team has done a few calculations to show that revenue projections will slip by 25% by the time your next new product is released that will return the market to its previous parity. Your product development team has started on a project to create that new product, but is months if not more than a year away from completion.

At this point, you’ve got a problem. Marketing suggests changing the target market. The sales guys are in favor of slashing prices and moving more units. The production group screams in protest; that they can’t keep up with orders now, much less at larger volumes.

You’re asked to figure out what could be done to keep the company going until the next big product is done.

First, you recognize a time constraint. The project team needs a year to get a totally new product out to market; one that will, you hope blow away your competition… but your company doesn’t have a year to wait. The right question to ask in response to this type of constraint is what can be accomplished quickly that can, if not return the market to parity, to at least get your product to be more competitive.

Its time to start looking for easy options: change the product’s color, add in cheap bundles to increase the value of the product, look for opportunities to co-market the device with related products. In short, its time to start thinking of what you can do within a reasonable period of time and not what you can’t do with all the time in the world.

Next, you recognize a cost constraint. If finance is projecting such a dire sales slump and your company doesn’t have the free cash to keep running at the current cost structure until your new product can turn sales around, its likely you won’t have the staff or budget to finish that project in the projected year. If your company cuts staff, the project will take longer. If the budget gets cut, your quality is likely going to suffer.

One way to combat a cost constraint is to figure out ways to mitigate the loss in sales. One way to do this is to offer incremental improvements in your current product that can be delivered in a very short time frame. Change that analog display to a digital one. Reconfigure your site layout to remove confusing features so the user can focus on what is really important to them. Put together a list of the things consumers most dislike or would most wish to see included in your product, prioritize them into a list and determine a strategy to make those things happen.

Last, what about a resource constraint? What if your company’s huge project is pulling in all resources while other products of lesser importance fall by the wayside. What do you do when what you are responsible for is having all its resources pulled into a big resource black hole?

You can look for other resources, but you’re not likely to find them as the company has already realized its not going to have the money for the big project, much less your small one. You know you’ve got customers using your small product daily, but they’re not getting the support your sales team promised them.

It can be painful, but sometimes your best option is to simply embrace the constraint. Maybe the more time you give to the big project, the faster it reaches completion and the sooner it is your resources come back to working on your project. There are times when all you can do is give in to the constraint.

So what constraints are you dealing with in your organization? How are you dealing with them? Let us know down in the comments!