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Constraints are Advantages in Disguise

by Vikas Hazrati on Oct 06, 2010 |

Building software is closely associated with managing a lot of constraints. These constraints might be in terms of time, money, technology, decisions, compatibility, regulatory, people, process or all of the above. Jim Bird discussed the constraints imposed by Scrum, XP and how they help in fostering creativity and building the right software.

Jim mentioned an interesting observation about constraints.

But there’s a wonderful paradox in constraints and limits that I enjoy thinking about:
Constraints take control away from you: by dictating, by forcing you to think and work a certain way, by limiting your options.
But…
Constraints help you to take control: by dictating, by forcing you to think and work a certain way, by limiting your options.

Jim suggested that XP and Scrum force the team to work in fixed, short time boxes hence limiting the amount of work that you can take in a sprint. The solution might not be perfect but there would be a good chance to get feedback and enhance it in the following iterations. Timeboxes serve as the perfect hedge against perfectionism, gold plating and procrastination. Working with the timebox constraint also helps in managing the risk, since you would not be building too much which would be difficult to throw away.

With time boxes you are forced to work "in the small”, to think, really think, about how to get work done. It’s all about execution: who, what, when, what happens first, second. It creates a sense of urgency. And a sense of satisfaction, in seeing work done, in the feedback that you get.

Likewise, Jim mentioned that the constraint of planning just in time helps eradicate wasteful exercise of making huge plans which are outdated as soon as they are done.

The book “Getting Real” by 37signals suggested that limitations guide to creative solutions. A team should embrace constraints rather than despise them.

There's never enough to go around. Not enough time. Not enough money. Not enough people.That's a good thing.

According to 37signals, the constraints helped them to come up with creative solutions.

We lowered our cost of change by always building less software. We gave people just enough features to solve their own problems their own way — and then we got out of the way.

Marissa Ann Mayer from Google had a similar story to share. According to her, constraints shape and focus problems, and provide clear challenges to overcome. Constraints also lead to creativity at its best.

Constraints can give you speed and momentum. In shaping the process used to design a product, constraints can actually speed up development.

However, Marissa cautioned that constraints should be balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible. This fine balance leads to innovations which can help a team either deliver an idea which changes the world or allows them to fail fast.

Ethan Zuckerman mentioned that some of the best creativity came to light when work was done in constrained conditions. He quoted the example of Picasso.

It turns out that great artists choose to constrain themselves all the time. Some of Picasso’s most moving works were made in his blue period, when he constrained himself – consciously or otherwise – to a limited, stark color palette.

Thus, constraints mostly lead to innovation and creativity. The key to be at the creative best when working with the constraint and turn it to an advantage. As 37signals put it,

Constraints are often advantages in disguise. Forget about venture capital, long release cycles, and quick hires. Instead, work with what you have.

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Challenge the constraints often! by Rodrigo Coutinho

Cool article! Off the top of my head, I can think of two other things that give you constraints in a "good way":
- Design principles - I.e. define rules for your product/website/... to help guide implementation decisions.
- DSLs - A good DSL will let developers focus on the problem, rather than the technology, even if it narrows the number of dev possibilities.

I'm sure there's a bunch of other constraints that can help (would love to see more on the comments!), but the part I think needs a lot of highlighting is the quote from Marissa Ann Mayer: Constraints must be balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible.

Looking at a problem and dropping the constraints that limit the solution can lead to very surprising results. Not only in terms of alternate solutions, but also in terms of finding out what the team perceives as constraints. These constraints are not always real, and challenging them can lead the team, and the solution, to a totally different path.

Re: Challenge the constraints often! by Umashankar Arora

Right constraints have advantages in Disguise and A true agile team prove that "Constraints help you to take control: by dictating, by forcing you to think and work a certain way, by limiting your options.".
With constraints in place forces every team member (Product Owner, Scrum Master and team members) to think and decide what can be delivered best in the provided situations. The Agile Mentor/ Scrum Master should see that team always has control and challenges don't take them in wrong direction.

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