Part of the series Making Sense of Making Sense

The usefulness of constraints

Why understanding constraints is essential to making sense of the world

No matter how hard we try to escape them, there are always constraints on ours and others’ behaviour. We don’t act randomly. We’re constrained by our own thoughts and feelings, by the expectations of others, by laws, by rules, procedures and processes, and by the laws of physics. Constraints limit us, but in a complex and potentially random world they also impose some degree of order.

Constraints don’t just spring into existence randomly, though. They’re often put in place by humans, consciously or unconsciously, and are often removed by humans, too. They’re a tool we can deliberately use in order to influence the behaviour of systems and groups of people.

If sense-making is “making sense of the world so we can act in it”, then constraints are important in two ways. First, it’s important to understand the constraints that exist already; we can’t make sense of the world without making sense of the constraints that exist within it and that will restrict our actions. And second, constraints offer us a means by which to act, since altering a system or organisation’s constraints affects how it behaves.

The first step in understanding a system through its constraints involves looking at the quantity and the rigidity of the constraints that exist. In a system with few constraints or very loose constraints, things are less stable. They change a lot, things seem apparently random, and new patterns emerge regularly. In a system with many constraints or very rigid constraints, things are much more stable. They change less often, things seem very ordered, and new patterns do not emerge.

constraints-spectrum Fewer constraints Less stable More change New patterns emerge Flexible Unpredictable More constraints More stable Less change No new patterns emerge Rigid Predictable

Our choice to impose or remove constraints, then, has an overall impact on the behaviour of the system. Removing constraints moves the system leftwards; adding constraints moves it rightwards. Neither movement is right or wrong in itself. Both are useful in different situations, and achieve different things.

Imagine you’re managing a football team. You’ve drilled the team relentlessly and instilled in them a brilliant understanding of their tactics. Each player understands their role implicitly, and executes it to perfection. These are constraints, and they help each player to make a decision in the moment. Although the system is rigid, it’s very stable. You’re on the right-hand side of the spectrum, and you’re on a brilliant winning streak.

Eventually, though, the time comes that you’re no longer winning every game. Week after week, opponents seem to have sussed out your tactics and beat you with ease. What previously looked like solidity now looks like inflexibility; you’re still consistent, but consistently losing.

You’re faced with a choice. You could think up some totally new tactics and try to impose them immediately, exchanging one set of constraints for another. But that’s risky, and only allows for whatever solution you can dream up in the moment; it’s limited by your imagination. Instead, it might make sense to give the players more freedom, to remove constraints from them. What patterns might emerge when players are allowed to improvise in the moment? You may start to see techniques and patterns of play that are helpful and effective against your opponents. You’re moving the team leftwards, removing constraints and allowing new patterns to emerge, patterns that you might not have been able to anticipate.

Eventually, you might want to settle on some of these new tactics, and impose them more rigorously, so that everyone has a clear understanding of how you want to play and so that you can bring new players into the team and have them contribute from the start. If you did so, you’d be moving rightwards again, returning to a more constrained way of playing.

This illustrates why constraints are neither good nor bad. If you’ve got a superior tactic, constraints make that super clear to everyone and avoid people doing less effective things. If you’ve got a lousy tactic, constraints force people to do the wrong thing. Sense-making involves understanding the constraints you’re operating under, how they relate to the outcomes you desire, and whether you need to impose more of them or ease up on them.