Constraints Are Cool

Can a Product Manager solve all the problems within the reach of the product they manage, or implement all the features so badly want? Certainly not. Complications will always arise. Competing priorities, development team size, dependencies on third-parties, tech debt, compliance issues, all of these limit what a product team can deliver in a certain time interval.

Photo by Jeroen den Otter on Unsplash

Critical times

Coming into World Trade Center, firemen from Ten House soon concluded people about the impact point would die. Caught trapped in the upper floors, they couldn’t come down, and rescue people couldn’t go up. Ceding to the desire to save them wouldn’t change anything for the rescue team but putting their own lives in danger, so they decided they wouldn’t even try. Calls like these aren’t easy, but they’re needed, and make other decisions easier. Creating constraints reduces your problem space and your solution space.

Cutting decisions to simply your life

Certain parts of our life benefit from having constraints artificially added in the form of minimalism. Clothing is one of them, since you have a much simpler task choosing what you’ll wear if you own less clothes, and they all revolve around a few more-or-less neutral colours.

Constraints in Product Management

Constraints like resource shortage can simplify some product-related decisions and/or force others. Certain items in your roadmap require a designer and your team doesn’t have one? Clear the way for what you can do by shooting those to the next quarter, and you will have either made your job of prioritising those easier or you will have made nervous some that can influence getting a designer in your team.

Caught in the middle of a prioritisation war with HiPPOs (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion), RHiNOs (Really High value New Opportunity) and ZEBRAs (Zero Evidence But Reality Arrogant) pushing 10–12 different problems into your pipeline? Count the heads in your team, and you get a cap on the number of major themes/epics you can prioritise for the short term (e.g. quarter). Capped to three themes now? Cool, your problem is now reduced to selecting those three (constraints will help you here as well), dissecting them, prioritising the result, planning.

Communicate transparently to everyone what was prioritised and why (including the constraints), and you stand a better chance of not coming across as a nay-sayer to those championing the 7–9 themes that didn’t make it for now. Constraints actually “made” most of the decisions for you, and those around you will either live with them or influence changing the constraints.

Creativity arises from scarcity

Counterintuitively, constraints can also boost your creativity. Curtailed by e.g. only having limited tools or materials (either in quantity or variety), one needs to find creative ways of using those. Characters in fiction, such as Angus MacGyver and Jack Bauer, flourish when facing extreme situations with limited resources.

Creating crossword puzzles is another fine example of creativity being stimulated by constraints. Crossing words across with words down severely restricts the words you can choose, so you need to get really creative with your vocabulary.

Coming back to Product Management, you’ll find this notion reflected in techniques and frameworks widely used for product discovery, development, or for whole-team activities (like retrospectives). Creating a User Story Map with only markers and 3 varieties of Post-it notes (constraint 1) and by following a certain process (constraint 2) is a way to focus on the essential (remember minimalism above?) leaving room for creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. Conducting a Design Sprint is a lot about using constraints (time, process) to be laser-focused on one critical business question.

Constraints are so cool that this whole story was written with one constraint. Can you identify what it was? Comments are welcome!

(Crossposted at Product Coalition.)