You need constraints to make the right decisions!

A constraint is quite like a fence
Really? I need to be constrained to make the right decision? To many, this may sound contradictory. After all, a constraint is a limiting factor so why would anyone need them? Instead, one should have unimpeded flow towards decision success and that means that we should NOT have any constraints. So how can we make such an absurd statement that we need constraints to make the right decision?

Before we get into the role of constraints, let us talk about unimpeded decisions - at least as far as options go. There was a test conducted by Sheena Iyengar, professor of business at Columbia University. In this test, Iyengar and her team continuously switched the display of jams in a supermarket and tracked the sale. In one set up, they offered 6 varieties of jam; in another, they offered 24. One would think that with more options, there would be better sales; after all, the same six varieties are within the 24, right? Well, just the opposite happened. 60 percent of the customers were attracted to the 24-jam selection, while 40 percent of the customers were drawn to the 6-jam selection. But here's the doozy - only 3 percent of those who browsed the 24-jam collection bought a bottle, in deep contrast to the 30 percent who bought from the smaller sample sized setup! This experiment shows that when we have 'unimpeded' access to our decisions - by way of options - we fall into indecision. In the case of the jams, that resulted in significantly less sales.

What we need is some way to trim off the fat. After all, if six varieties of jam is sufficient, we should only consider these and nothing more. In fact, neuroscience goes one step further and says that our brain can handle a two-option decision best. Two options! Every additional option increases decision complexity exponentially. This actually flies in the face of a previous post I made when I mentioned that we need at least three options to get at the best decision. So I am contradicting myself, really.

Actually, no. Decision making is a divergent-convergent process. In order for us to get at the right decision, we need to have at least three options. More if you can afford it. That's the divergent part. But as we get closer to making the decision, we need to trim the fat and converge onto the best two. That's the convergent part. What allows us to trim the fat, so to speak, are decision constraints.

As mentioned earlier, many people view constraints negatively. When one says, "I have a budget constraint", they are really saying, "I cannot afford this." They have shut their mind to the possibilities of working within the budget, choosing instead to say "no". To get at a much better outcome, we should be asking, "How can I get what I need with the money that I have?" That frames the discussion around working with the budget, instead of against it.

So what is a constraint?

In decision making, that is a necessary condition for the right decision. So if you have a budget of $2000, then the constraint is to work within the $2000. If you have a time frame to complete your project, then the constraint is to complete it within that amount of time. There is nothing negative about it, it just is.

But, even after reading about all this, many of us will still to be "constrained" by the normal vernacular of constraints. Hence, there is a need to reframe the way we see that. To do this, we phrase it in a way to get our mind out of the negative frame. So let's just say that we need to get stakeholder agreement because of higher strategic implications of the decision. For some, this is a huge hurdle they would rather avoid. But in our positive frame of constraints, we rephrase this starting with the words...

Provided that I/we can...

So, this constraint can be written "Provided that we can secure stakeholder agreement for the decision." Suddenly, the dread of having to speak with senior manager or the Board becomes a necessary condition for the success of the decision. Not a stumbling block.

Implications of this phrase

The implications of using the phrase "Providing that I/we can..." are:

1. Turns the negative frame to the positive

This has been discussed already so I shall not elaborate any more.

2. Opens up further options

Notice, like for the stakeholder constraint, we now have other options or can at least expand existing ones. So when we say "Provided that we can secure stakeholder agreement," we can think about how we could influence them both formally and informally; we could engage with them and seek their point of view and include them in our decision; or we could get them to articulate their concerns about the decision, and add them into our final decision. We could even enlist the help of a champion who can engage with the stakeholders on our behalf, thereby freeing us from having to "worry" about that constraint. Notice the many different ways to achieve that.

3. Puts the onus on us

Many of us are good at shifting responsibilities. "That is not our job," or "They should be the ones to do this, not us!" delineates obligations. While that may be organizationally correct, what that does is puts your decision success at risk. If you rely on others to get your decision to succeed, you have an added layer of complication and risk. Rather than subjecting your decision success to chance, you should do something about it, even if you don't have direct line of sight. The onus is on you. But what if you don't have the mandate to address that constraint? What if you do need to enlist a third party to get at your decision? Then it means that you either need to negotiate for support or pull in additional firepower to address this. Either way, you are doing something about it and not leaving it to the whims and fancy of a third party who might not be inclined to see the situation your way. By articulating our constraints in like manner, therefore, we take ownership of the situation, and we identify the additional actions or attending risks before we embark on the solution.

Constraints are therefore not a hindrance to our decision, they are a necessary condition for a successful one. Hence turn your concerns into constraints and you will be well on your way to making the right decision. Just remember the phrase, "Provided that I/we can..."

In my next post, I will discuss the sources of constraints and how to turn these into constraints. I will also discuss how you can use these to propagate more options.

If you want us to help your company use constraints better, drop me an email at

Get our articles direct to your inbox! - SUBSCRIBE TODAY!

Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Classic
  • Twitter Classic
  • Google Classic

Get our articles direct to your inbox! - SUBSCRIBE TODAY!