Constraints matter.  A lot.  By embracing them we become better and stronger than we ever could without them.

2 very different examples are below.  I also outline a process I cribbed from a good friend and former colleague on how to pick the best course of action for optimum returns.

First example: I like to ride and (sometimes) race my bike.  A year ago my wife and I flew to China and adopted a baby boy.  He’s 2½ now and a complete handful of both daily delight and responsibility.  Between my son and my work/travel schedule I have some serious freekin’ constraints on my time and freedom to ride my bike let alone train to race.  Here’s where the constraints kick in to make things deceivingly better.

The amount of time required getting into and maintaining bike-racing shape is proportional to the strength and endurance an athlete develops.  The forced limits on time of a busy parent require dedicated focus and more importantly: specificity.  In other words, I can’t waste time.  I must focus.  I have to be very specific in what I do and how I do it, else I’ll get my ass kicked come cyclocross season.

When I head out for a ride I’m deliberate and mindful of what I want to accomplish and why.  That’s not to say every ride is a prescriptive event, but I think more about it and I am completely and utterly in the moment, focused and specific.  I don’t ride as much “volume” as I did prior to last March, but I have just as much if not more fun.  Sometimes I do a “freestyle” ride but often its regimented intervals of some kind or another.  Riding my bike has more meaning now that it did before and I’m making as much or more of it.

The second example is building and growing a company.  Money, time and people are the raw materials. Each carries with it a set of unique constraints.  Money is probably the easiest to understand.  Either you have it, or you don’t.  If you have it, its either increasing (profit or new investment) or its decreasing.  Without more at some point you go out of business.

VCs and other types of interested investors are almost always required in my chosen line of work.  Together, we attempt to build companies that sprint toward a market opportunity and grow in dramatic leaps.  Sometimes those bets pay off, and sometimes they don’t. We carry a very healthy burden of constraints.  Investors and the board of a VC-backed company can never know the gory and intimate details of the daily operations, instead their role is to guide and direct, often through the explicit use of constraints.  These are healthy for the same reasons I mentioned above, they help crystallize the focus, priorities – and specificity – of the leadership team.

Every major decision in a company backs up against constraints: whether, where, and when to invest money, people or time in pursuit of some future return.  By requiring a leadership team to make hard decisions due to resource constraints the team is therefore forced to prioritize, focus, and show specific success metrics that make obvious that their use of resources will generate a positive return.

A number of years ago I worked for a great guy named Joe Wagner.  Joe was about as operational and focused as one can be.  He had a simple 3-step filter to whether we should pursue an opportunity or not.  If there are multiple competing opportunities it’s useful to let them do just that: compete.  The filter creates a framework where each opportunity can be made more attractive than the others – the result being higher likelihood of positive returns given the resource constraints.

  1. Real.  Is the opportunity real?
  • Is there a there, there that we can prove to ourselves? Do we have 3rd party validation? Or are we just breathing in our own exhaust?
  1. Win.  Can we win?
  • Do we have the right people, products, and capabilities to deliver?  Are we positioned well against our competition? What if that competition is customer apathy?
  1. Worth.  Is it worth it?
  • Not by itself, but in comparison to all the other opportunities in front of us? What’s the long-term value? Short-term return? Are we sacrificing one for the other?

The trick with this “Real – Win – Worth” filter mechanism is the intellectual honesty required to weigh the facts.  Of course it often comes down to uncertainty and emotion to make the final call, but I’ve found it a highly useful framework for weighing competing opportunities especially in a resource-constrained environment.