Today’s post looks at ways to understand what “constraint” means for an organization and why we need to identify it and manage it in 21st century organizations. This is an extract from the new business novel + website, The Human Constraint.
May opened the window of her apartment to let in some fresh air. The morning was still cool enough to do without air conditioning, and she preferred the familiar Brooklyn buzz of constant traffic to the mechanical groan of her old AC unit. She needed more clarity for the executive summary she was working on for TPK holdings. Her notes so far were solid. She understood the background of the team, their expertise and how they had come together in a previous project. There was a systemic methodology and philosophy behind everything, but she wanted to be able to convey more clearly what they meant with the idea of a constraint. How exactly was that so central to their solution?
She sat back down at her desk and moved a pile of books to the floor to make room for her notepad. They were books about modernist poets and they weren’t useful for writing about TPK. As she looked down at the names of the poets, it struck her how in contrast their writings were to what Sam talked about. Woolf, Yeats, TS Eliot, they all spoke about fragmentation, about a centre that couldn’t hold, a worldview ravaged by war where things no longer made sense. How could anything make sense after all the horror? Sam, instead, had a very different vision. He talked about a world where everything was connected and you could make things whole. If that were true, it was an exhilarating thought. It meant that underneath everything, instead of there being fragments, the way the poets wrote, there was actually unity. And if that were true, then surely it meant there was potential for humans to be more united and equal. The more she thought about it, the more she realized it was revolutionary in its own way.
Perhaps revolutionary was not the right word. Everything Sam told her was based on increasing knowledge about nature, so perhaps a better word was evolutionary. And surely, the more this knowledge emerged, the more human behavior could reflect it. He‘d explained how most organizations were artificially fragmented into pieces. The very language they used was about “divisions” and “functions” that were considered separate. The reality underneath it all, he said, was quite different when you understood it. He’d used the analogy of an x-ray, that if you could look beneath the surface of a company, you wouldn’t see separate parts, but a series of processes that were all interdependent. A bit like the nervous system of a living organism. Only most people didn’t get that. And so they kept imposing a divided hierarchy because they thought it was an effective way to control people and their actions. But the more people were able to recognize how work was a flow and how actions were connected to each other, the more those interdependencies could emerge and become an increasing strength, an increasing source of resilience.
There was still the notion of constraint, though, and how it was so central to their approach. She had a grasp of the idea, but if she had to communicate it to others she needed a deeper understanding. It sounded a bit negative, but she knew that was not the case. What was it, exactly, about this best practice, that was different? Sam was always very clear that she could ask him all the questions she needed to, and she reached for her phone. She knew he didn’t mind helping her, but he was probably busy. She put the phone back down. But how could she write this up without the right metaphor?
“You are not disturbing me at all, May.”
Sam’s voice on her cell phone was clear and unhurried.
“Thank you. I know you’re busy. It’s just that I want to make this whole constraint thing a bit clearer.”
“When you understand that an organization is a whole, instead of separate parts, and you understand how everything is connected in an organization, then finding the constraint and managing everything around that focal point is a huge advantage.”
“Yes. I understand that it helps you focus, but it’s still a bit vague. I’m trying to find a way to capture the idea.”
“Think of it in terms of energy. The way to harness the potential of energy is to constrain it in some point.”
May searched in her mind for an image. “You mean like an electric circuit and a plug?”
It was clearer now. “Or a dam for hydro-electric power?”
“Even better! Think about all that flow and energy in a waterfall. But the only way you can harness the potential of that energy is to constrain it in one point, through a dam.”
“So the constraint is what transforms potential into energy?”
“Exactly. There’s nothing negative about it. In an organization, that flow is the flow of energy that comes from work. So we chose a point in the flow, and we make it the constraint. Then we organize everything to flow through that constraint, making sure the constraint never ever fails to do its job. That becomes the focus point for everything else, and that makes all our efforts much more powerful. Remember, the constraint is never a limitation, it actually frees up energies that would otherwise be lost.”
A liberating constraint. It sounded like an oxymoron, but if she kept the image of the dam in her head it was clearer. It was actually a thrilling notion.
“I think what you’re saying, Sam, is that we can actually design the way we do things to make them more effective. It’s beyond planning, it’s a way of shaping reality.”
“Indeed. It’s called self-determination. We can’t control every little thing of course, because reality is too complex, but we are free to choose to avoid repeating behaviours that worked in the past but not any more. We need to use new knowledge for the 21st century.”
Angela Montgomery PhD is author of the new business novel+website ‘The Human Constraint’.
Inspired by real life events, this book explores a systemic approach to management and how that can lead to a new economics for sustainable prosperity.