Leader to Leader | Embracing Constraints, The Sky’s the Limit and Gravity’s Good, Too

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 “Whom the gods wish to destroy, they give unlimited resources.” – Twyla Tharp, dancer and choreographer

The word constraint generally evokes a negative response.  It suggests limitations, boundaries beyond which we cannot travel or operate.  It intimates the absence of options, or a curtailed freedom to make preferred choices, even if the options exist.  For an innovator, an entrepreneur, or anyone seeking to expand the frontiers of the presently known and possible, constraint might appear as an enemy at the gate, refusing passage.  In fact, the opposite is true: constraints are some of the innovator's finest friends.  They indicate where the gate to success may lie, and provide the parameters of the path that will ultimately lead us through it.  Without parameters there is no path.  Constraints offer structure that can liberate us from the potential chaos of entropy.

What is built without structure?  Not a skyscraper or a house; even a tent has its stakes and poles.  Visit a third world city and observe how urban life functions without the advantage of organized infrastructure.  The size and complexity of structure varies, depending on the ambitions of a project, but any project, especially a new, disruptive project, benefits from the stability and strength imposed by constraints.  Structure boosts what we build high into the sky while at the same time keeping it solidly grounded.

Consider gravity, a constraint so familiar and accepted that we rarely think of it.  A leap in the air needs gravity; a jump off a cliff is subject to its effects.  When we want to manipulate the strictures of gravity we innovate: we invent parachutes, hang gliders, and hot air balloons, master aerodynamics and the chemistry of jet fuel, experiment with rocket propulsion and beyond, continually pushing the limits of gravity imposes on us.  Yet we know that without the constraint of gravity, none of these enterprises would be possible, much less successful.


Imagine your enterprise as a hot air balloon. What will transform it from merely an earthbound basket attached to a colorful envelope draped limply over it?  The simple answer, of course, is heat.  Ignite a flame to warm and excite the molecules of air and get them bouncing around, energized, and soon the balloon is inflated and ready to fly.  But the air must be enclosed in the envelope – limited, constrained.  How much heat is required and for what length of time will depend on the size of the balloon, but simply kindling a campfire under the open sky never lifted anything; flight is achieved through constraint.

In order to take advantage of the lift constraints can give your business, it helps to understand and anticipate the expected growth pattern of business in general.  Developed in 1962 by Everett M. Rogers, sociology professor and author of Diffusion of Innovations, the S-curve model is an attempt to understand how, why, and at what rate ideas and products spread throughout cultures.  Adoption is relatively slow at the base of the S, until a tipping point, or knee of the curve, is reached, usually between 10 to 15 percent of the market penetration.  Hyper-growth follows up the steep back of the curve.  At the flat top of the S, you've reached saturation, typically at 90 percent. The S-curve is also a tool to understand how constraints befriend the innovator.  Constraints are most imposing at the low end of the curve: knowledge, experience, funding – all these ad more can be in short supply.  Growth is measurable, but slow, as seen in Figure 1.

As competence and confidence are achieved, likely accompanied by a loosening of other constraints, growth accelerates dramatically.  But, perhaps surprisingly, at the high end of the curve, where mastery is measured by the enormous amplification of available options and resources, growth slows again, and may even decline.  At both ends of the curve, embracing the friendly companionship of constraints has several advantages for the innovative leader.

The Lens of constraint: Narrowing the Focus

Sooner or later, most of us become familiar with the constraints required to lose weight.  Exercise is required; so is calorie reduction.  Being lean and fit means eliminating many options; the upside is that the choices that remain are healthful ones.

Constraints clarify this stratification: essential; desirable but not essential; undesirable.  When choices are unlimited the relative merit of different options can remain opaque.  Leadership with obscured vision can sink an enterprise before it gets off the ground.  Constraints adjust the lens through which we monitor our efforts and helps us sharpen our focus.  Having a clear view of what is good, better, and best is an important early step on the low end of the S-curve, allowing us to allocate limited resources where their impact will be greatest.  Even a small venture like writing this article is made easier by a word limit.

A life of complete freedom would be characterized by infinite possibilities coupled with debilitating complexity.  A simple ten-step process with only two choices for each step yields 1,024 options.  Given enough time you could probably identify the most profitable path, but if you bump the number of choices at each step to three the number of options increases exponentially – to 59,049.  Solving for good, better and best would seem impossible, well before unlimited possibilities are introduced into the equation.

In 1998, then-Minneapolis- based architect Sarah Susanka published her first book, The Not So Big House, and incidentally launched the “small house movement.”  Susanka claimed that what American homes needed was not a ballooning number of square feet, but an innovative approach to size, focused on multipurpose rooms, quality construction, and aesthetics over spatial volume.  Susanka generated her own career S-curve with her foray into this uncharted territory, and nearly two decades later the slightly rebranded “tiny house movement,” complete with its own reality show, Tiny House Nation, continues to push the limits on how small we can go.  Under severe space constraints, tradespeople and artisans focus collaboratively on solutions to pedestrian issues such as accommodating mechanical systems, where to hang the clothes, and how to incorporate privacy.  With square footage stringently minimized, options would seem to be few, but the crafters of these homes produce detail-oriented  structures that are surprisingly rich and diverse, often rising to the level of the art.

Rapid Feedback: The Value of Constraints in the Era of Immediacy

How many of us abandon an online news story if we have to wait for a video to load?

Increasingly, we expect rapid, if not immediate, feedback.  Ask Siri almost anything and she will answer before the question has echoed.  The entrepreneur who hesitates can easily get lost, or at least bypassed by someone moving with greater speed.  Because changing the status quo tends to be unnerving, most of us want (need) feedback on how we're doing as quickly as possible.  The most effective and accurate way to achieve this is by imposing constraints.  By reducing the number of variables, constraints allow leaders to make faster, more accurate predictions of consequences, facilitating determination of the course of action likely to produce the best result.

Quick feedback helps us ascertain whether our new idea or enterprise is a leap in the air, and the constraint(s), like gravity, may help ground it, keep it from drifting off into irrelevance; or whether our innovation is more accurately characterized as a jump off a cliff, and the constraints are so limiting that we will, barring a miracle, crash and burn.

Liz Wiseman, author of Rookie Smarts, offers this: “Consider science and technology, fields in which information is doubling every nine months and decaying at a rate of 30% a year, thereby rendering as much as 85% of a person's technical knowledge irrelevant in five year's time.  For many professionals today, the ability to learn is more valuable than accumulated knowledge.”  In a marketplace where ideas and information have a very brief shelf life, feedback-stimulating constraints are an aid to their requisite rapid adaptation.

A personal friend in his mid-sixties received a glowing annual evaluation in late 2014.  Awarded a 5 and “Exceeds Expectations” in every category, he was nonetheless laid off a month later.  The pro forma, traditional-style evaluation came too seldom and slowly, without providing the feedback he needed about the company's real-time performance, how his contributions actually fit into management's vision, how he needed to be evolving in his position, and even evolving the position itself.  The previous year's evaluation had included a recommendation that he become more familiar with new technical applications in his field.  A lower degree of innate tech savviness is a constraint for many late-career professionals.  A younger employee may be constrained by less experience, but she is also a less costly resource while being technically more agile amid constant change.  The ability to learn, and to learn quickly, is more highly valued than confident competence, and rapid learning presumes commensurately rapid feedback.

Think about skateboards.  Every action, every move has an immediate consequence.  Daniel Coyle posits they are some of the quickest learners in the world because they receive incredibly fast and useful feedback.  Participants in extreme sports of many kinds are nimble adapters.  Thanks to the familiar, friendly constraint of gravity, they discover immediately what works and what does not.

Imposing Constraints: Defying “Death by Success”

At the high and end of the S-curve, where success and profitability have exploded many early constraints, it is not uncommon for entrepreneurs to lose their way, gradually yielding the field to leaner, hungrier start-ups (or upstarts, as a non-native English-speaking acquaintance invariably calls them, oblivious to the mistake and the humor in it).  In order to remain fresh and relevant, it may be necessary for leadership to impose constraints, forcing a fall back to the creative problem-solving structure that limitations provide.

In the 1980s, WordPerfect owned the market for word processing applications.  In less than a decade it had skyrocketed up the S-curve, garnering almost unfathomable wealth in the process.  These were the early years of he technological revolution, when the earnings potential of continuously evolving technologies was only dimly perceived.  WordPerfect's Utah campus was opulent; they offered industry leading benefits for the highly talented employees who flocked to work there; the cafeteria was rapidly becoming a destination restaurant for the community.  Resource constraints had dissolved.

In the early 1990s, WordPerfect, fearful of upsetting its overflowing apple cart, hesitated to shift from DOS to Windows.  They trailed Microsoft by a year and a half, and their initial release in the new platform was dead on arrival.  Microsoft Word has been the dominant player ever since, while WordPerfect has been sidelined, still popular in a handful on niche markets, but essentially irrelevant, unknown even, to most users.  Innumerable companies have likewise been the victims of their own success.  A plethora of resources can lead to waste and cosmetic window dressing.  Comfort and competence can be synonymous with complacency and the loss of competitive edge.  Business, governments, and households improve efficiency when they are required to work with less, and all are more extravagant when resources are abundant.

Astronauts floating in zero-gravity weightlessness appear liberated from the most fundamental limitation on movement, but in reality they are subject to numerous ailments: nausea, vomiting, headaches, lethargy, and muscle atrophy.  When floating outside a space vehicle, zero gravity absolutely necessitates that astronauts be restrained, tethered; the consequences otherwise would be catastrophic.  Unconstrained businesses are likewise susceptible to sickness or disaster.  Contemporary acknowledgement of finite Earth resources has spurred increasing innovation in green technologies, as opposed to the wasteful processes of the past (strip mining and clear cutting immediately spring to mind) that were spawned by the false assumption that resources are inexhaustible.  Businesses that integrate this macro thinking at their micro level are much more likely to defy death success.

Self-imposed constraints can reinvigorate an individual career as well.  College athletic coaches sometimes jump from successful teams to programs for which considerable constraints exist: insufficient funding, losing tradition, recruiting challenges, poor facilities, sanctions for rule infractions under earlier regimes.  This is the environment that stimulates, provides space for growth, and allows personal talents to flourish and shine.  Urban Meyer coached Florida football to national championships in 2006 and 2008, stepped away from coaching for a year in 2011, and then became head coach at at Ohio State.  Though traditionally competitive in college football, Ohio State was experiencing serious constraints.  Under sanction by the NCAA, they were ineligible to play in their conference championship or a bowl game; they had lost scholarships and experienced players.  Exceptional new talent, dismayed by these developments, was difficult to recruit.  Meyer coached the beleaguered Buckeyes up the S-curve to a national championship in three seasons, showcasing his personal worth as well as the value of embracing constraints.

Stumbling Blocks to Stepping Stones: Turning Constraints into Constrengths

Beginnings are always small.  Every enterprise starts small, at the constraint bounded bottom of the S-curve.  When did you last hear a business, no matter how successful, described as having started “big”?  We are all familiar with the list of fabulously successful corporations that started in the garage, dorm room, basement, or barn.  Where are those that started with a huge office building, gargantuan manufacturing and warehouse space, thousands of brilliant employees, and billions is assets?  Growing from small to large requires turning constraints into “constrengths.”

Room escape games are increasingly popular as a corporate team-building activity.  Locked in a room together, a group of people must find clues and solve puzzles to gain the key to escape.  Such exercises expose strengths and weaknesses in individuals coping with constraint.  Who communicates well, or is calm under pressure?  How is a deadline handled?  Who are the analytical thinkers, and which team members are more imaginative? Cooperative? Confident? Under normal circumstances we leave a room by opening a door; there is no need to think outside that box.  Lock the door and withhold the key – embrace constraint – and concealed strengths may be revealed.

As mentioned before, one of the hazards of a zero-gravity environment is atrophied muscle mass.  Our bodies evolved in an environment is atrophied muscle mass.  Our bodies evolved in an environment in which stress and strain are the norm.  Weight lifting causes micro-trauma that initiates a damage response pathway that secretes growth hormones.  Weight lifting, not weightlessness, builds strength – even if the only weight we're lifting is our own.

We can take a cue from the botanical world: there are plenty of plants that are resource hogs, but there are also those that thrive with lean soils, minimal water, less sun.  Too much fertilizer and they produce leaves, but fewer flowers and fruit; too much water and the roots rot; too much sun, they wither and burn.  There are no plants more valuable to a gardener than those that can thrive in dry shade, competing with the tall timber for limited soil nutrients and other necessities.  Successful entrepreneurs, like such plants, are resourceful, meaning, quite literally, “full of resources.”  The resources are internal, not external.  Those who embrace constraint blossom not with an abundance of riches, but with resource impoverishment.  Ease ultimately results in weakness; opposition develops strength.  Resourceful leaders and followers don't just produce in the face of constraints; they produce because of them.  They are adaptable, hard working, smart, nimble in crisis, and, of course, innovative – embracing constraints as the ultimate source of invention.  When the going gets tough, the resourceful show up.


If your enterprise is young, perhaps floundering, embracing the invigorating potential of constraints can help you get off the ground.  Identify how the limitation you face can be harnessed to serve your interest.  Maintaining a friendly, elevating level of constraint helps build the structure by which you can ascend the S-curve to success.  If your business is older  and already successful, imposing needed constraints can generate an energy boost to counteract the risk of aimless drifting or even a loss of altitude.

Innovation is like helium in a child's balloon, but we want our dream to float, nor drift away into oblivion.  Embracing constraint is like tying a string to tether the balloon to an object fixed by gravity, a tiny fist, perhaps, or a lamppost, or stair rail.  Constraints make it possible for us to fly.

This post originally published at Leader to Leader

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