Constraints as Catalyst

We wanted to title this article, “Tie Me Down to Set Me Free”, but thought it might be misconstrued as the next in the Shades of Grey series. When we’re told about a constraint, it’s usually heard as a restriction being imposed. We see them as a negative. Constraints induce complaints. We see them as restraints, limiting forces, as negatives that reduce our options. They tie our hands. They hold us down. They narrow our field of vision. We don’t like curfews, rules, caloric intake restrictions, or spending limits on our credit cards.

A new book, The Freedom of Constraints, is a collaborative project led by Darcy Verhun, and involves contributions from a number of business leaders. Each contributor shares an experience where they were liberated by some form of constraint. What looked like a dead end morphs into an on ramp to bigger and better futures. It’s a book about how constraints can serve as catalysts. Contributors include business owners, executives, coaches, consultants, and medical professionals. Essays span the range of how COVID created constraints that forced adaptation to stories related to war imposing constraints on citizens. There are several essays which discuss our health and energy levels as constraints. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we become like a car that runs out of gasoline. It doesn’t matter how much horsepower our engine has, we won’t be able to make forward progress. There’s a great balance in these essays between personal anecdote and practical guidance to help us dread less and deal better with obstacles. I’m lucky enough to have Darcy as a friend. I’ve also had the good fortune of serving on a board with him and enjoyed learning from his rich business experience. Here’s what a couple of others have said about the recently released book:

“Some of our best opportunities to innovate and succeed are hiding behind constraints and challenges. Insightful leaders and organizations find these opportunities, leverage them, and grow stronger. No organization can sustain true success without this kind of adaptive agility. ‘The Freedom of Constraints’ is loaded with creative ideas and practical guidance for getting it done.” Harry M. Jansen Kraemer, Jr. Professor, Kellogg School of Management and Former Chairman and CEO, Baxter Intl.

Canada’s own Arlene Dickinson of Dragon’s Den fame also supports the book noting on Linked In “The Freedom of Constraints” is full of the kind of wisdom that only comes from experience and depth of view. We can all learn from the stories it contains about overcoming obstacles and leading in difficult times.”

The diverse perspectives drawn upon ensures that you can pick and choose in order to find something you can use. An “aha” moment, I experienced was reading an essay by Dr. Julie Rosenberg in which she noted the single largest constraint to an organization is its employees’ health. What if this is true? Would it change how we should think about what characteristics we’re looking for in hiring? Should it impact how we manage our staff’s workloads?

After reading The Freedom of Constraints I began to see more and more areas where what appear to be constraints are valuable.


“Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame.” -G.K. Chesterton-

Sports, as well as art, are all about constraints. One of the appeals for participants and spectators is that the rules are objective, known, and clearly defined. Competitors operate within the rules of the game. Much entertainment value comes from seeing athletes work the edges of the rules. Kobe Bryant took great pride in learning the boundaries of the roles of officials on the court in order to gain an advantage. In The Black Mamba Mentality, Bryant writes, “I made a point of reading the referee’s handbook. One of the rules I gleaned from it was that each referee has a designated slot where he is supposed to be on the floor. If the ball, for instance, is in place W, referees X, Y, and Z each have an area of the court assigned to them. When they do that, it creates dead zones, areas on the floor where they can’t see certain things. I learned where those zones were, and I took advantage of them. I would get away with holds, travels, and all sorts of minor violations simply because I took the time to understand the officials’ limitations.”

Athletes showcase skills based on working within the limitations of their sport. Even the boundaries of the playing field can make the sport compelling drama. Consider CFL v. NFL Football. The differing dimensions of the field are some of the primary differences between the game. The endzones in the CFL are twice as deep and the field is slightly wider than that of the NFL. These changes alone dramatically shift the strategy of teams in the two leagues. CFL supports an offensive bias. The deeper endzone affords offensive teams an advantage by expanding the field of play. In the NFL the endzones are only ten yards deep. As the offensive team makes progress and marches into the redzone (within the 20 yard line of the defensive end of the field), the field gets smaller. As they progress, the offense has less and less space with which to work. The timing and precision of routes receivers run must become ever more accurate as it is hard for receivers to escape the cloak draped on them by defensive cornerbacks. The redzone is where NFL receivers make their name. Their ability to evade defense and find a way to get their hands on the ball thrown from their quarterback while getting both feet in bounds makes for compelling, athletic, acrobatic, even ballet like movements. Quarterbacks and receivers earn their multi-million dollar contracts by finding a way to excel as the field gets smaller. The constraints between CFL and NFL even extend to what counts as being “in bounds” and a legitimate reception. In the CFL, receivers need only to get a single foot down and in bounds in order to count whereas in the NFL a receiver must get two feet in bounds. The constraints provide for different strategies which results in different skill sets or levels of athletic prowess being valuable. The rules of sport provide the basis of entertainment for us as viewers. No boundaries, no brilliance.


Routines, workflows, processes, and checklists are all examples of constraints. By defining what is supposed to be done, they reduce options. Each of these act as constraints. However, these constraints are guides which improve things. They are intended to improve outcomes. To ensure quality and consistency. It’s one of the root explanations of successful behavior. The discipline of imposing constraints on ourselves through developing good habits and routines builds skills and improvements which makes our lives better which results in freedom. It’s only by constraining ourselves can we free ourselves. Yes, these types of constraints require constant review in that too many result in bureaucracy whereas too little results in sloppy, chaos. With the right balance, constraints expressed through routines and workflows clarify responsibility and offer direction which both motivates and assures quality output.

Deadlines are a form of constraint that can stimulate progress. Parkinson’s Law reminds us that however long we have available to us is how long a job will take. We get more done with less time. Less time, more action. Additionally, constraints as guides, guardrails, and tripwires which reflect feedback that help us on our Path to Proficiency. Moreover, constraints are at the core of who we are. They represent what we cherish. Our values and principles are constraints on our behavior. Principles represent our personal or business boundaries. Their presence dictates that there are areas outside in to which we won’t venture. Our values and principles act as constraints which steer us to where we want to go and help us say no to the things that aren’t priorities. By defining what we want, constraints keep us from wandering while wondering in to the wilderness outside our core objectives.

Prompt Action:

In the pre-pandemic good old days, a perk of going grocery shopping was sneaking a sample being offered here and there by various food vendors. A study in 2000 kickstarted an area of research that has expanded in the years since. Psychologists became interested in the relationship between availability of options and individual ability to make decisions.  Were more options appealing to consumers? Was attention peaked when presented with more or less options? Psychologists Iyengar and Lepper led research in this area. In 2000 they published their now classic Jam Study. At a grocery store the researchers set up a typical sample stand. They alternated within a day and across days the number of items on display. The display either contained six jam options or twenty four. Interestingly, the number of people that attended the sample stand increased with the expanded options. The number of choices seemed to capture shopper’s attention. However, the purchases resulting from the two options were the opposite. Actual purchases were significantly better where choices were limited. The takeaway was that options may be interesting in terms of grabbing attention, but more isn’t better in terms of making an actual choice.

Over the years, I’ve stopped at many gas stations to refuel. On the odd road trip one or more of my children may be with me and when they were little they would lobby for a chocolate bar. Dad would say go for it. Then the pain began. Our youngest would stand shell shocked in front of the row of chocolate bars on display. He would see options he’s never seen before. He would see a rainbow of wrappings. He would painstakingly ponder each available option. All of a sudden, to him, time stood still. He would take more time reviewing these than he would listening to a teacher at school in an entire school week. If left on his own to decide, he would still be there, years later. Poor dad would default to the old “if you don’t decide right now, you get nothing” or “if you can’t make up your mind, I’ll decide for you.” It’s not just kids that struggle with making decisions when many choices are available, we feel it at restaurants. Some restaurants like to list the options over many pages. Staples like Denny’s or Boston Pizza offer menus that read more like books.

Big Wave surfing legend, Laird Hamilton, writes in the book, Liferider, “Choice has become a disease. We are overwhelmed by it to the point of it making us unwell.” If we aren’t somehow constrained, everything is an option. The opposite of constraints isn’t freedom. It’s chaos. We freeze in the face of freedom. We’re paralyzed by a world awash in options. Optionality is overwhelming.  Choice can be crippling. Constraints in the form of reduced choices frees our mental resources. It’s easier to act and to do so with peace of mind when we have less options available.

Age, too, acts as a limitation. When we’re young, the world is our oyster. We are told and believe that we can choose to do anything. With each passing decade of time, our choices narrow. On some level this may be freeing as former US poet laureate, Stanley Kunitz, helps us see, “In a curious way, age is simpler than youth, for it has so many fewer options.”

Inspire Innovation:

In a prior article we noted that Scarcity is Strength. Having less helps us (forces us) to make better choices. Home builders, software programmers, interior designers, and product designers all depend on having some form of constraint in order to do their best work. Unlimited budgets don’t bring out the best results. Clear, detailed constraints force focused thinking.

Constraints can inspire bold ideas. Constraints offer challenges that provide opportunities to be confronted. US President John F. Kennedy introduced NASA’s Apollo program in a speech given at Rice Stadium in Houston in 1962. In the signature sentence spoken, President Kennedy captured a power of constraints, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.” Setting the clearly defined outcome of landing a man on the moon became the constraint of the project. It wasn’t a bland let’s try and venture higher into space or a banal let’s explore further. It was a specific goal that either would be achieved or not. The goal served as a clear constraint which channeled the efforts of 1,000s and inspired the hearts of millions.


Constraints can be seen as obstacles or hurdles which test our commitment. Do we care enough about something to try to navigate our way through the constraint? The dreaded Organic Chemistry course serves as a weeder course for aspiring medical students. This mandatory course doesn’t predict who will be a better doctor, but it does serve as a test of desire. Those that persevere in the face of the challenging materials increase the likelihood of moving forward to be accepted in to medical school. Standardized tests like SAT, GMAT, LSAT, and MCAT all serve similar purposes. They aren’t reflective of deep down talent or objective indications of intelligence. They are more hurdles put in front of those in order to see who has the desire to push on. They serve as constraints which test one’s will. Constraints are a challenge to be embraced. They invite you to consider the question, “Do you Dare?” Do you dare try to play on this field with limited space? Can you succeed in the face of X constraint? Constraints in this light inspire effort in those with deep desire. Constraints serve as the credential of the committed.


At the end of the day, constraints just are. They’re an unavoidable fact of life. An inevitable reality. If you want to be able to fly, you must learn to work within the limitations of gravity. Complaining about the cold wasn’t something that Earnest Shackleton exploring the South Pole and Antarctica had the luxury of doing. When he opted to play in that environment, he was not just accepting but embracing the challenges of the hostile cold climate. For those that choose to chase further frontiers in space, they must understand the extreme temperatures, absence of oxygen, and zero gravity. These act as constraints which must be obeyed. Constraints are everywhere. Accept them. The fiercer the force of the constraint the greater the reward for mastering it.

In Leadership in a Time of Crisis: The Way Forward in a Changed World, a compilation of articles from business leaders released early in the 2020 Pandemic a contributor observed, “One defining feature of a crisis, it seems to me, is a sudden contraction of resources. We all are conscious of scarcity these days. We can see that our grocery market’s shelves are less stocked.” Crises do result in shortages. This fuels our uncertainty and sense of loss. However, there are those that have and are embracing these forced constraints, leaning into them and using them as an excuse to work hard to improve. Constraints create clarity, cultivate curiosity, and enable commitment. They help us cut through the noise and help steer a choice. Constraints truly can be liberating.

Questions to consider:

What are some constraints I face in my job role?

How do these constraints serve to help me become better?

Do any of these constraints get in the way and reduce my ability to be effective? If so, in what way do these interfere?

Could these constraints still be serving a purpose to our organization of which I’m not aware?

Can you recall a time where you had a constraint imposed on a project in which you were involved which ended up making the project outcome better?