Provision #673: Constraints Matter

Laser Provision

What is your relationship to the constraints of life and work? Do you chafe at the bit or do you embrace them fully? Great leaders are not complainers. We do not view constraints as problems, nuisances, or inconveniences. We see them, rather, as projects, opportunities, and mandates. That’s because great leaders also do not view constraints as inevitabilities. They are the stuff that life and work are made from. Without constraints our creativity and confidence would not be called upon. Want to capture more of that juice for yourself? Read on.

LifeTrek Provision


Have you heard of the “if-only” syndrome? It sounds something like what we heard recently from Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, in talking about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill: “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. You know, I’d like my life back.” Tell that to the 11 people who died, the 17 who were injured, and the devastation of an entire ecosystem with trillions of interdependent plants, fungi, animals, human beings, and businesses. “If only” we didn’t have to deal with these constraints, life would be good.

There’s only one problem with that kind of reasoning: it’s a lie. There is no life at all without constraints, so life would not be good without constraints. Understanding this, great leaders do not resent, whine, or complain about the constraints we have to contend with and manage. Instead, great leaders warm up to the task and rise to the occasion, inspiring us all in the process. Someone should have mentioned that to Tony Hayward. Perhaps he would benefit from working with an executive coach.

And I don’t mean a media or PR coach. The problem is not with his spin or marketing message. The problem goes deeper than that, which is ironic considering that the name of the drilling rig that blew up in the Gulf of Mexico was the “Deepwater Horizon.” That rig, built in 2001 in South Korea, is one of approximately 200 deepwater offshore rigs capable of drilling in waters more than 5,000 feet or 1,500 meters.

As difficult as it is to drill to such depths, it is even more difficult and ultimately even more important for leaders to plumb the depths of our souls. What’s in our hearts? Why do we do what we do? How do we approach the constraints that we face? What do we hope will be our legacy in life and work?

Questions such as these begin to move us from questions of success to questions of significance. They concern us less with being the best in the world and more with being the best for the world. And they completely reorient our attitude when it comes to constraints.

Instead of viewing constraints as inconveniences and necessary evils, great leaders view them as opportunities and necessary challenges. They don’t get in the way of us doing our work and enjoying our life, they are the way to do our work and enjoy our life! Without constraints we would have no work to do and no life to enjoy.

That’s the message I really want to get across to Tony Hayward. I don’t want to “kick his ass,” I want to coach his heart. I want him to understand that all this stuff going on in the Gulf of Mexico is his and BP’s opportunity to shine. They can shine by how they handle the challenges, by how they move forward, by how they change the industry, and • most importantly • by what they learn about themselves.

The sinking of “Deepwater Horizon” and the subsequent oil spill are tragic but they are definitely not interruptions. They are part and parcel of the life we have made for ourselves and the work BP has taken on in an oil-dependent world. They are neither the first nor the last such tragedies. They are rather the constraints that come with the calling.

The key, then, is to anticipate and to handle the constraints as they come. There is no free ride when it comes to the petro economy or to any other leadership task. Too often I work with leaders who wish their constraints would somehow just magically go away:

  • Who wish they had more than 24 hours in a day.
  • Who wish they didn’t need so much sleep.
  • Who wish their spouses or partners would accept their crazy work schedules.
  • Who wish troublesome employees would resign.
  • Who wish they didn’t weigh so much or have a chronic medical condition.
  • Who wish the economy wasn’t so bad.
  • Who wish they had more capital.
  • Who wish the Internet was more secure or reliable or fast.
  • Who wish consumers weren’t so stupid.

Well, guess what? These constraints, like the oil spill, won’t magically go away and they aren’t interfering with our life and work. Like gravity, they are givens. And for leaders, the givens are the canvass upon which we paint our creations.

In his excellent book, Change by Design, Tim Brown describes constraints in these terms:

“A second way to think about the overlapping spaces of innovation is in terms of boundaries. To an artist in pursuit of beauty or a scientist in search of truth, the bounds of a project may appear as unwelcome constraints. But the mark of a designer, as the legendary Charles Eames said often, is a willing embrace of constraints.”

“Without constraints design cannot happen, and the best design • a precision medical device or emergency shelter for disaster victims • is often carried out within quite severe constraints. For less extreme cases we need only look at Target’s success in bringing design within the reach of a broader population for significantly less cost than had previously been achieved. It is actually much more difficult for an accomplished designer such as Michael Graves to create a collection of low-cost kitchen implements or Isaac Mizrahi a line of ready-to-wear clothing than it is to design a teakettle that will sell in a museum store for hundreds of dollars or a dress that will sell in a boutique for thousands.”

“The willing and even enthusiastic acceptance of competing constraints is the foundation of design thinking. The first stage of the design process is often about discovering which constraints are important and establishing a framework for evaluating them.”

“Constraints can be visualized in terms of three overlapping criteria for successful ideas: feasibility (what is functionally possible within the foreseeable future); viability (what is likely to become part of a sustainable business model); and desirability (what makes sense to people and for people).”

“A competent designer will resolve each of these three constraints, but a design thinkerwill bring them into a harmonious balance…. (This is not to say) that all constraints are created equal; a given project may be driven disproportionately by technology, budget, or a volatile mix of human factors. Different types of organizations may push one or another of them to the fore. Nor is it a simple linear process. Design teams will cycle back throughout the life of a project, but the emphasis on fundamental human needs • as distinct from fleeting or artificially manipulated desires • is what drives design thinking to depart from the status quo.”

“Designers, then, have learned to excel at resolving one or another or even all three of these constraints. Design thinkers, by contrast, are learning to navigate between and among them in creative ways. They do so because they have shifted their thinking fromproblem to project.”

Want to understand how this works in term of leadership? Go back and read the above passage again, only this time make the following substitutions. Replace the word “designer” with the word “leader,” “design thinking” and “design process” with the word “leadership,” and the words “design thinker” or “design thinkers” with the words “great leader” or “great leaders.” Make the substitutions, and the final paragraph deserves repeating:

Leaders, then, have learned to excel at resolving one or another or even all three of these constraints. Great leaders, by contrast, are learning to navigate between and among them in creative ways. They do so because they have shifted their thinking fromproblem to project.

That’s the shift leaders make to become great leaders. We come to view constraints differently. They are not problems, nuisances, or inevitabilities. They are projects, opportunities, and invitations.

  • Do you have 24 hours in a day?
  • Do you need more sleep?
  • Do you want more understanding from your spouse or partner?
  • Do you want a troublesome employees to resign?
  • Do you want to lose weight or better manage a chronic medical condition?
  • Do you want prosper in a bad economy?
  • Do you want to leverage more capital?
  • Do you want a secure, reliable, and fast Internet?
  • Do you want to educate your consumers

Great! These constraints, like the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, are your projects, opportunities, and invitations. They are the stuff that calls for leadership, and great leaders learn to navigate our way through such restraints so as to create the harmonious balance that brings good things to life.

Coaching Inquiries: What constraints are you contending with right now? How are you holding up and managing? What could help you to move from the language of complaint to the language of commitment? How could you engage with full confidence and creativity? Who could become your leadership coach along the way?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.




Very much enjoyed reading your Provision on persistence this morning. Very well done and very motivating. As always, thanks so much.


What a great Provision today. Thanks!


Just read your Provision on Rituals. It’s kind of refreshing to do rituals…the project consulting services of a downfall company needs them, if they are going to pull in the great lessons they should have learned along the way. 



May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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