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Why you need constraints

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Why you need constraints

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Constraints are often seen as something of a pain in the backside.  They make our lives harder, putting roadblocks in the way of our plans and obstructing our goals. Whether it’s a lack of money, a lack of time or a lack of knowledge, there are any number of things that can stand in our way.

The thing is, these constraints are also necessary, for you see any project that’s worth doing will inevitably come with constraints attached.  Our traditional opposition to such constraints seems to rest on the preposition that leaders and managers need to be in control of things.  If they’re not in control, they’re not managing.

Such a preposition is firmly rooted in the Taylorist thinking of organisations as machines, within which our actions will yield predictable results.  Pull this lever here to get more output there.  Tweak that knob over there to deliver greater productivity here.

The problem with such a perspective is that the more control you have over something, the less freedom those in your team have to supply their own thoughts and their own leadership.  I’ve written previously about how powerful leaders can often stifle the talents of those in their team.  Their confidence renders it difficult for other points of view to be heard.

Constraints and challenges can therefore be valuable because they force the leader out of their comfort zone.  They force them to seek opinions and insights from further afield, which is undoubtedly a positive thing, both for the diversity of opinion it solicits and the employee engagement it will foster.

Designing chaos into a process is the antithesis of what most leaders do however. Usually, we try to focus on one thing at a time. One objective, one concept, one conversation, one task.  But in real life, in real organisations, nothing happens one thing at a time. And no one can be on top of it all.

That kind of emergent leadership has become popular in recent weeks with the news that Zappos have adopted the Holacracy approach that ‘removes managers’, or more accurately it distributes management style responsibilities throughout all employees.

An organisation without managers might sound like a recipe for anarchy, but this is where things like the purpose of the organisation comes into its own.  How clear is the mission of the organisation? The vision? The values? The culture? If we know what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, what’s important to us, and how we operate, then there will be trust, focused action, and abundant, unified leadership.

It’s easy to look on challenges as a negative, but if they’re approached in the right way they can be an indelible force for good, bringing the best out of both you and your team.  The late, great, C.K. Prahalad once famously said that innovation occurs when you don’t have the resources to do what you want to do.

Just as necessity is the mother of invention, constraints of time and budget can actually result in innovation breakthroughs.  So next time you’re faced with constraints, embrace them, open up control to your team and let their innovative juices loose.
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