Hate is a strong word. But when you manage projects and lead teams, it’s easy to hate constraints. “If only we had more time. Or money. Or people. Or __________. Then we could deliver.”
Constraints limit our options, and by limiting us, they hold us back from getting better results.
Or do they?
Scott Sonenshein is the author of Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less—and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined. His book just hit the shelves this month and it’s filled with lessons that challenge us all to reframe how we look at constraints. Sonenshein provides a compelling case for why constraints—having less—may actually be a good thing, or at least provide benefits that are not offered when we have excess.
In this post, I share three ideas from Stretch that you can apply to your day-to-day leading of people and projects.
Constraints Are… Good?
I can accept that constraints are capable of fostering new ways of thinking. That’s not a new thought and seems reasonable, in theory. Yet it can cause headaches, in practice. I’m more apt to whine about the limits of constraints than I am to see them as catalysts for creativity.
But here’s a practical application of the idea that I use with my executive coaching clients. Too often, when faced with a constraint, we can easily become the No person. Here’s what I mean….
A CEO of a mid-sized company was walking me through her facility, introducing me people along the way. When we eventually got back to her office, she asked if I remembered one of her project managers. I did. She confided, “He’s the No guy.”
“What do you mean?”
Shaking her head, the CEO shared, “It doesn’t seem to matter what the question is, his answer is ‘No’. If I ask him if we’re going to hit the project due date, he’s likely to respond ‘No, we have issues.’ If I ask if we can add functionality to a project, his response? ‘Nope. Not in scope.’ Can he make it to a meeting? ‘Sorry—I’m busy.’ He’s the No guy!”
I decided to ask the Dr. Phil question: “How’s that working for him?” Without hesitation, the CEO said, “He’s about to get fired.”
I want to be clear: sometimes the best answer is ‘No’. If it’s an ethical, safety, or quality issue at stake, the best response is likely a direct, emphatic ‘No’. But that’s not what was going on here. This guy, when faced with constraints, only saw reasons why something wasn’t doable, so that’s what he communicated. I’m guessing he isn’t lazy or unwilling. He just tended to see why things weren’t possible.
Being the ‘No’ person is not generally good for your career. Yet being the ‘Yes’ person can set you up for failure as well. So what’s a constrained project manager to do?
When faced with a constraint—let’s say a time constraint—instead of being the ‘No’ person, try to reframe the problem. Instead of “No, it can’t be done!”, or “Sure! No problem, Chief!”, how about this…. Consider what can be done in that timeframe.
Surely you’ve learned to not bring problems but solutions, right? Think of solutions in this context as options. What options can you bring to your sponsor or stakeholders that acknowledge the constraints yet strive to best meet the needs of the business?
Bringing options shows you’re trying to help—you’re trying to be part of the solution. It can depend on context, but I’ve found offering three choices is better than just one and certainly better than twenty. Bring options to your sponsor and work with them to see which one best serves the organization. This approach is far more beneficial than just saying No or Yes.
Tapping Into the Wisdom of Outsiders
In Stretch, Sonenshein shares that one way to think differently about our constraints is to get beyond ourselves by tapping into people with fresh eyes who are perhaps not as emotionally invested in our project. There are remarkable examples of how the further a problem is from a person’s expertise, the more likely he or she is to solve it. Sonenshein tells of biologists who solved more chemistry problems compared to chemists. Scientists outside a specific field had different, and ultimately better, ways of approaching problems than the experts.
The lesson for us? If you have a problem to solve or constraint to deal with, consider bringing some outsiders into the discussion. Maybe it’s someone new to the company or group. Maybe it’s someone who has solved a similar problem in a different domain. Perhaps it’s asking a millennial for their thoughts despite their limited experience.
The point is that expertise has its benefits, but sometimes it’s a curse. Outsiders can connect dots or bring ideas to the discussion that would not otherwise have been considered. Give that a try in the coming weeks and let me know how it goes!
You Get What You Expect
Sonenshein suggests You get what you expect. He’s speaking to the biases we have when faced with constraints. If we’re convinced there’s no way to do something, we’ll find the data to support that bias.
As I’ve studied cognitive biases and talked with experts on the topic, the biggest lesson I’ve learned is not just that these biases exist. That’s indisputable. The greater threat is we’re more blind to them than we realize.
When you are soon faced with another constraint, try to intentionally start with your expectations. Even if it’s suspending disbelief, try to force yourself to say, “Hey, there’s a way around this! We can solve this!” Changing the mindset to expect a solution is a great place to start.
A Fresh Look at Constraints
Constraints can drive us crazy when we’re faced with delivering projects. The easy answer seems to be that fewer constraints—or more resources—is the answer to our problem. Sonenshein provides compelling evidence that Having More Resources ≠ Getting Better Results.
You can listen to Scott talk about this in his own words at http://PeopleAndProjectsPodcast.com/165. You’ll hear him talk about additional ideas, such as how to increase the psychological ownership of your team members. And Sonenshein will challenge you to take an honest look at whether you’re a Chaser or Stretcher.
So what’s your take? What questions or concerns do you have? How have you seen excess hurt a team or company? Or how have you seen constraints help? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments below. I look forward to discussing this with you!
Andy Kaufman is a keynote speaker who helps organizations around the world improve their ability to deliver projects and lead teams. He is the host of the People and Projects Podcast which provides interviews and insights to help you lead and deliver. Learn how to earn free PDUs at http://PeopleAndProjectsPodcast.com/FreePDUs
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