Perceived constraints


Let me begin with a little story

A while ago, I read a story about how elephants are trained not to run away from their owners.

What the trainers do is tie elephants up with chains while they are young and weak. The young elephants learn quickly that they cannot break the chains or tear down the walls they are tied to. They are too small and too weak.

Later, as they grow up, those same elephants tear down walls and lug around trees all day long. However, they continue to obey their chains even though they could easily snap them.

Why do those mighty animals not run away towards greener pastures? Well, they learned a long time ago that they could not break the chains, and they stopped trying.

How does this apply to all of us?

Have you ever heard: “We tried that before.” or “This is how we always did it.” or “This could create a problem.”?

All of the above are forms of perceived constraints. We think something won’t work, but we haven’t actually tried it (or even given it a deep thought). It even might not have worked in the past, but well, guess what, the world changes – all the time.

What didn’t work in the past might be one of the greatest ideas today. Does anyone remember how Steve Balmer was convinced that phones without a keyboard wouldn’t sell? That was true at a time, but when Balmer made that statement, it was long expired.

We often limit ourselves by what we think are constraints – but are they really constraints? Do they need to be?

Some of the constraints we see are real. However, most will turn out to be learned or assumed.

Don’t hold yourself back by what you think are your constraints. Never stop re-visiting, never stop trying, never stop looking for new data or changed circumstances.

It is critical to understand your constraints. However, which of them are real, and which of them need some poking and testing to see if they still apply? Always ask what underlying factors drove those constraints and if those factors still apply. Do you have new solutions (new technology, skills, people, changed policy) at your disposal that might circumvent those previous constraints?

Of course, there are hard and real constraints as well – I can jump out the window as often as I want, I will not grow wings and start flying. However, for every constraint (or challenge) that you face, you need to clearly determine if it’s perceived or real.

If it’s perceived, discard it right away and move on. If it’s real, think about how you can work with or around that constraint.

If you face a real constraint, come up with a plan to deal with it:

  • Blocking scope – What specifically is that constraint blocking? Part of what you want to achieve or all? If it’s just a part, get started with the things you can do and take it from there.
  • Underlying drivers – What is causing that constraint? Can it be negotiated, even just for a small experiment?
  • Risk versus benefit – What would happen if you would give up the constraint? What could go wrong, what’s the worst case? Is it really so bad that you need to give up the improvement opportunity?
  • Be creative – Is there a way around a specific constraint? Can you develop a different solution to overcome the constraint?

On the point about me jumping out the window and trying to fly – if I were smart, I could take advantage of new technologies like a nice parachute.

Discard perceived constraints. Respect real constraints and work with them.

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Assume positive intent!

I had a few pretty contentious meetings this week. My first reaction was probably the same that most people have in such situations – somewhere between: “Really!?” and “What the…!”.

It’s easy to get protective or even combative if you have a lot going on. When in stress, we tend to develop tunnel vision and assume we’re the only ones who have the right solution. We don’t understand why everyone else is so difficult to deal with. It’s a fight-or-flight reaction that our brain falls back to in an attempt to ‘simplify’ our world view in situations of stress and perceived danger. It allows us to react fast and decisively – however, not always smartly.

Unfortunately, the reality is never that simple.

Being in a few such situations this week, I took a deep breath and remembered a training on unconscious bias that I attended a while ago. One of the principles they mentioned in that training is to assume positive intent.

Instead of thinking, “WTF, I’ll set you straight on this…”, rather take a deep breath, and then take another one. Assume positive intent – very few people want to cause trouble, and almost everyone has good intentions that drive their point of views and behaviors. Everyone has good reasons and wants to do the right things.

Assuming positive intent helps you to take some of the emotions out of an interaction. It allows you to take the other’s perspective for a moment and see things through their eyes. You will be able to understand where they are coming from, or if you don’t, you will at least be curious enough to investigate and (hopefully) ask them. There are so much power and beauty in actually talking to people instead of just assuming.

Assuming positive intent, and seeking to understand what the other person wants to achieve, will help you to understand their goals. More often than not, those goals will not be too different from yours. You might identify a shared vision with the other person, and with that, find a solution that leads to a win-win for everyone.

Sometimes it’s hard when emotions are high, but take a few deep breaths, assume positive intent, put yourself in the other person’s shoes and see what new solutions arise from that expanded perspective.

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