The power of working with constraints

The power of working with constraints

The power of constraints is easy to explain by observing how our vision works. Think of the electromagnetic spectrum.  It encompasses all possible frequencies of electromagnetic radiation – what we call ‘light’.  Imagine that you would have a detector that would capture all electromagnetic wavelengths simultaneously.  In that case, this information overload would make it difficult – if not impossible – to make sense of our surroundings. 

One form of electromagnetic radiation is visible light.  So your eyes constantly capture a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum.  However, if you would like to detect infrared radiation with longer wavelengths, you would need night goggles.  Or if you want to see through solid objects, you can only do so with an X-ray machine, which detects only shorter wavelengths. If we apply limits to what we can see, we gain more clarity.  We just see more.  

The idea of the power of constraints (i.e. less can be more) can be found in many different contexts.  One example is that it’s often more effective to work with smaller teams – not bigger ones.  There is indeed value in the constraint of working with fewer people. I have found an interesting quote from J. Richard Hackman, a Harvard sociology professor in the book “Team of Teams: new rules of engagement for a complex world” (Stanley McChrystal):

It’s a fallacy that bigger teams are better than smaller ones because they have more resources to draw on. As a team gets bigger, the number of links that need to be managed among members goes up at an accelerating, almost exponential rate.

So indeed, teams are much trickier to build and maintain than we like to think.  Team dynamics are powerful, but delicate.  Team expansion can sometimes break the dynamics. 

In his handbook “Leading Teams”, Hackman reminds us of “Brooks’s Law”: the adage that adding staff to speed up a behind-schedule project has no better chance of working than would a scheme to produce a baby quickly by assigning nine women to be pregnant for one month each.  So in some cases, adding manpower to a late project makes it later.

Constraints have the potential to drive innovation 
We are generally less impressed by someone who creates something valuable with millions of dollars or euros and a team of 20 persons than we are with someone who uses off-the-shelf parts and duct tape to come up with a more creative solution that is nearly as good.  Think about a fantastic scene from Apollo 13: NASA engineers designed an alternative air filtration system to save the astronauts in the capsule. It’s such a powerful scene both because of the high stakes and the tight constraints on the ground-based designers.

Requesting fast feedback (‘speedback’) is another example of working with constraints 
Imagine you would give your colleagues only three minutes to answer one simple question: “What advice would you give me based on the experience you’ve had with me?”.  I’m sure it would generate some of the best feedback you have ever received.  So when you are willing to impose constraints – in this example, it’s ‘time’ – you have a better chance of identifying what is working and what needs to be changed. 

Artists who work with constraints make themselves more remarkable
Constraints give us something to push against.  If there are no limitations, we can easily lose our way.  A beautiful example of this is the music for Ave Maria, composed by Charles Gounod in 1859.  He could have started anywhere, but Gounod chose to begin with the constraint of composing a melody over Johann Sebastian Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C Major – composed two centuries earlier.  So by giving himself something to bump up against, Gounod wrote one of the most beautiful melodies of all time.  Igor Stravinsky once said: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self”. 

Limitations are not always fun.  However, our response to limitations often defines us.  Think of Henri Matisse.  Towards the end of his life, he was too sick to work. Multiple surgeries and diseases had left him mostly bed-ridden. He could no longer paint. But rather than let his limitation be the disappointing period at the end of an otherwise fantastic career, Matisse dedicated himself to a new art form: paper cutouts. During his last decade, using primarily scissors and paper, Matisse produced some of his best-known art  work he called “drawing with scissors.” So his limitation was the key to an entirely new and innovative era of his art.

So let me repeat myself: I’m a great believer in the power of working within limits. However, we cannot always choose our constraints. But we can always choose how we respond to them. It's our response to limitations that often defines us.
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