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Unlocking Innovation: The Power of Enabling Constraints

When embarking on a new project, it's common to view budget, time, and resource constraints as hurdles that slow innovation and progress when creating complex solutions. However, the key lies in recognizing that not all constraints are adversaries. Instead, they can be powerful allies in fostering creativity and driving innovation. So, let's unravel the nuances between fixed and enabling constraints, revealing how a strategic deployment of enabling constraints is the better pick when you want to catalyze breakthrough solutions.

What are Fixed Constraints?

Fixed constraints are limitations that restrict the range of possible solutions. These constraints are rigid, unyielding parameters that may stifle creativity and progress. Examples include:

  • Fixed and non-negotiable budgets.

  • Limited and inflexible time limitations.

  • Overly strict governance.

  • Rigid company cultures.

  • Other unchangeable and stringent policies.

While they provide structure and boundaries, they can also hinder the exploration of unconventional or out-of-policy solutions. In complex problem-solving situations, rigid boundaries often fail, resulting in costly overhead and recovery. Hence, it is essential to be mindful of the limitations of fixed constraints and only apply them when absolutely needed.

Enabling Constraints and their Benefits:

Enabling constraints differ from fixed constraints as they are intended to produce a broader range of outcomes due to their more flexible boundaries. They allow greater freedom of action and catalyze teams and individuals to explore their creativity. The constraints are adjusted as needed to address changing circumstances. They act as protective measures when value-creation is low, preventing the loss of valuable budget, time, and other resources.

A Few Examples of Enabling Constraints:

Flexible Budgets: When facing a budget, it's common to see them as unalterable. However, reframing them as enabling constraints to achieve your goals better is possible. For example, when using Lean Value Trees (LVT), budget allocations are made in small bets or experiments funded incrementally based on the potential and proof of value. Investments are continued or expanded based on the value generated by a bet. The budget can be reduced once the bets no longer produce enough value. Then, incrementally, the budget is constrained to safeguard against poor investments. This approach still establishes an overall budget, but new allocations are based on results rather than predictions.

Time Management: Much like budget constraints, time can be an enabling factor if defined correctly. In Agile, incremental delivery becomes an enabling constraint in several ways. The delivery cadence and increments enable the team to prioritize and focus on the most valuable tasks. The delivery timing is flexible and can vary based on priority, potential value, and degree of complexity. Teams are given an additional enabling constraint of only being able to pull in work that can be reasonably completed in a given increment. Occasionally, items are excluded from development if they are perceived as not delivering sufficient value, allowing the reinvestment of time into higher-priority items.

Company Vision: Having a well-defined vision is crucial as it serves as a guiding force and an enabling constraint. It provides a clear and inspiring framework for decision-making and resource allocation. With a well-written vision, efforts become focused, creativity is inspired, and priorities are set. The constraints imposed by a well-defined vision are not meant to be restrictive but rather empowering. It provides a structured framework that encourages collaboration, adaptability, and the evolution of strategies in response to changing circumstances. When a vision is shared, it fosters a sense of purpose and motivation, driving individuals and teams to take actions that contribute to realizing the vision's desired outcome.

Final Thoughts:

Discerning when to deploy fixed constraints for stability and predictability and when to embrace enabling constraints for adaptability and exploration becomes crucial in addressing the challenges of complex and diverse situations. This nuanced understanding is beneficial and critical in making the right decisions. Moreover, when the pursuit involves creativity and innovation, the indispensable role of enabling constraints emerges, acting as catalysts for unlocking individuals' and teams' full creative potential and innovation.


Join our upcoming workshops to learn about fixed and enabling constraints. Our Fundamentals of Leading Agile and Hybrid Teams workshop is scheduled for December 11th, and our Driving Strategy and Vision with Lean Value Tree (LVT) workshop will be held on January 9th. Both workshops offer an excellent opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of using enabling constraints to foster team innovation. Don't miss out on these great learning experiences!

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Dec 09, 2023

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