Constraints – What can you REALLY Change?

As a PM or a team member, you are probably getting fairly adept at recognizing and defining your project constraints. Starting perhaps from the largest and working your way to the smallest (i.e. has to be a road, has to be a two-lane road, and has to be a 24.5’ wide to lane road…) you begin to zero in on your finished product. While much of this and many blogs are dedicated the pursuit of innovation, often through the questioning of perceived constraints and the value that can be created when these assumptions are disproven, I wanted to focus for today on the value of constraints.

Without a doubt, every project is going to have legitimately fixed constraints. Whether it is budget, project footprint or scope, or some discreet deliverable, many things are beyond questioning and will drive a project more than any other element. These are easy to manage within. The difficulty comes in discerning where the line is between what you can change (for the better) and what you cannot (or at least in a manner which creates value for the project). While many (including myself) love to preach about how you must ‘question everything’ and re-write the rules, I believe that the ultimate blend of project management execution and innovative leadership lies, in part, within the ability to sift through the shades of grey, predict the future to some extent, and guide the team through a daily exercise involving; pushing their limits to create more than what was thought possible, yet focusing their efforts away from quixotic ventures of innovation lore.

Maybe you’re paid as a PM to deliver. Maybe you’re paid as a leader to create value. How can you do both?!? Start by practicing your balance between pursuit of innovation and change versus the bottom line value within constraints. That’s right, value within constraints. Straightforward algebra has fundamental comfort in its consistency. The same is true on projects. While every constraint should continue to be initially questioned, your optimum performance as a PM is often predicated upon your ability to balance the extent to which this line of questioning should continue and then the finality of the conclusion of this line of questioning. That is, push every constraint to their limits, then decisively draw the line so as to move the team along in a timely and steadfast direction.

So please, continue to start your conversations with, “Why?”  Just practice keeping those conversations to a set duration and ending them with a constraint. I believe you will find value while achieving your project goals.


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