Building a box around a team should raise stress levels, increase conflict and eventually result in a lower quality outcome, but the opposite is often true.
As Matthew May has detailed in his book The Laws of Subtraction, creativity thrives under intelligent constraints.
Twitter is a great example of this – upon first examination, 140 letters seems an infinitesimal length to convey something meaningful and yet in spite of high signal-to-noise ratio , there are still hundreds of brilliant tweets that have been inspired because (and not in spite) of that length restriction.
Imagine if projects had no constraints – financial, schedule or otherwise. You may feel that this would allow for lateral or even multi-dimensional thinking which would result in a better end result, a few factors would conspire to prevent this:
- Parkinson’s Law: With no constraints on time, a team could theoretically spin their wheels forever. More realistically, the lack of a schedule constraint means that there would likely be progressively diminished focus.
- Gold plating: Without financial constraints, the desire to continuously tweak or re-factor a deliverable would go unchecked.
- No constraints = no focus: Inspiring and motivating team members and stakeholders to align in the same direction is challenging enough under normal project constraints so imagine how challenging it would be without those.
- Forget scope creep, try scope leap!: In the absence of constraints, the objective of building a better mousetrap could bloat into the vision of eliminating pests worldwide!
If necessity is the mother of invention, why do we rebel against constraints?
Resistance is generated by the sad reality that many projects have not been intelligently constrained and team members have been burnt sufficient times by this issue such that their first reaction to the imposition of constraints is to challenge their realism.
To combat this learned cynicism, project managers and sponsors should commit (and demonstrate through their actions that they will!) to providing a safety net – if it becomes quantitatively evident that a constraint is unachievable, support the team by re-baselining or by adjusting other constraints. If such behavior happens often enough it can help to un-learn the natural reactions team members may have to seemingly impossible constraints.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not only because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” – John F. Kennedy