Posted on June 20, 2012 · Posted in Project Management

Every project has at least one constraint. That is the theory of constraints. Constraints are part and parcel of every project. It is a misconception to believe that project managers are not aware of constraints. The truth is that they are so used to constraints that they take them for granted. ‘For granted’ I use here not with its general meaning. We take for granted things favorable as coming to us without our effort. Constraints too come to us without effort on our part and sometimes in spite of our hard work to avoid them. So, as project managers, our traditional and conventional thinking is that project constraints are an essential part. We must learn to live with them. The worst of this thinking leads to the idea that there is, of course nothing to do even if these constraints totally fail the project.

What ? You don’t agree. Take ten project managers of your choice to a dinner. Make them speak their mind. You will sure be patting me on my back.

The problem has more to do with our conventional thinking and our upbringing in general. We are programmed to believe that problems and hardships are part of life. They are inevitable and we need to live with them. Very few of us are brought up to deal with them. When the economies are looking down we talk about cutting costs, and creating a lean organisations. We never look for ways to increase sales because it is more comfortable to go with the trend. When it rains and our roof is leaking we are taught to move the bed elsewhere. We never want to find a way to fix the leak.

When things get delayed due to our bad ways we try to fix not the problem but the effect. Or we try to find something easy to fix. When you are late to meetings, you try to blame the timing. You never want to learn to get up early and manage time effectively. The bottom line is that conventional wisdom has not taught us to look the constraint in their face.

Even when we are truly enthusiastic about doing ‘something’ about the constraints, bottlenecks, limiting factors or whatever they are referred to as, we tend to use the same paradigms or the same thinking we are comfortable with. The greatest lesson I have learned as a project manager who is obsessed with getting projects to move without friction is that most of the problems are within us – in our attitudes, our beliefs and the frame of reference we have created. Subconsciously we resist change. We need to settle to the idea that the challenge is beyond our control.

Fortunately, there is a new way to look at the problems affecting the systems. First,the new approach requires to look at constraints in terms of systems concept. It is all about analysing issues as part of a whole. This will free you from the mentality that constraints can be bypassed or ignored. Next, the new approach necessitates a totally different attitude to constraints that goes direct on the face of conventional wisdom. We learn to think that constraints can be analysed objectively and they can be effectively dealt with. Put in another way, constraints can be acted on and changed in such a way that projects are run without friction.

Sure it is a new paradigm. New set of beliefs that need much repetition and emphasis before it makes any effective bearing in your ‘fossilized project thinking’.

First, though, what are systems amenable to this new approach?The systems are not just our projects that we are given to manage. They could be anything in which organized effort is used to produce results. Multinational organisations, governments, local authorities, functional divisions of commercial and non-commercial entities are all taken as systems. In the final analysis, a family or even an individual is a system that qualifies to benefit by this new approach.

The new approach to focus on constraints has five essential steps with an additional sixth stressing on making the domesticated monsters genies springing from Aladdin’s lamp.


Constraint is anything that prevents the system from achieving its goals as documented. Naturally enough, according to this simple definition, constraints can be of myriad types and nature. Fortunately they all never occur in one system or at least at any one given time. Before an attempt to identify constraint, it is necessary to realize their many types. I am not going to elaborate much on the aspect of classifying constraints as we are much too familiar with it. Our conventional wisdom has given us a good tool kit to analyse the constraints to such an extent that we need no reinvention of the wheel. There is one inherent problem in this analysis, though. It is again the mindset or attitude with we do the analysis. With new approach we analyse the constraints as something that we can deal with. This new thinking will give a whole new leverage to our systems and their destiny.

Constraints are not just static, non-dynamic blocks on the road. Like anything else in life, they are what they take them to be. Even in a strictly material sense, it remains the fact. Let me make myself clear with an example. Time is a common constraint that operates on the resource side of the system equilibrium. When considered in a conventional sense, the problem of lack of time may be identified as a reason for making changes in factors totally irrelevant in identifying the real issue. You may consider revising the specifications that will not be ‘seen’ by the client as a way of dealing with this constraint. You might have the nerve to negotiate the project scope with the client or press for new budgetary allocations. All these solutions are offsprings of the traditional paradigm that time constraint can not be dealt with.

Now, let’s have a look at how the process of constraint identification take a different dimension with the new thinking. New thinking is that constraints can be acted on and changed or modified.

Faced with a time constraint, how many of you as project managers have you ever stopped to answer this question: How do we define this particular time constraint we have ? Is it a problem with time absolute in a universal sense or is it about number of useful goal units we produce? If it is about goal units, what should I look at closely ? Is it a problem about my team not working at the optimum rate? If I identify suboptimal performance of my team as the time constraint, will it help?

Yes. Answer is a big yes. When you face the problem as part of the system and as something that can be changed, the way you identify the constraint will change.

I can quote many examples to prove the point. Remember all those nagging constraints that you had to deal with in your project management life ? Could they be interpreted differently in a more actionable way? What could have been the result?

It requires team effort. First, it has to do with the share values and beliefs of your team members. When the situation is analysed as a team, more valuable insight will spring. The most e

So, the method is simple. Change your thinking and change your team’s attitude towards constraints. Find the constraint using the conventional wisdom, but interpret it in the empowered new thinking. You will find, I bet, ways to identify constraints that will facilitate adjustment in the systems that will require no sacrifice on the part of stated goals.


Identified constraints need decisions to act on. It is not an overstatement to say that new way of thinking must be given priority here. We need a framework to make decisions. There are seemingly two such framework working here. One dictated by the old paradigm of taking constraints as static roadblocks, which makes the whole decision making process less effective in terms potential ability to change the outcome. The new new thinking will help make decisions about steps to be taken to change based on the assumption that constraints can be changed for the better. Old thinking tries to engineer out the problem while new concept look for ways to engineer in. In other words, it is matter of deciding to remove it or work on it and work through it.

When, in one of the projects I managed, we faced a situation in which the output of an expert programmer was a stumbling block which was affecting the momentum of the entire project. Given the essential nature of the programmer’s output, we have two options in the traditional thinking. One was to hire one more programmer or to slash the project scope. Both options were to engineer out the problem.

We applied the new empowering approach. We needed to work in and engineer in. We had a few brainstorming sessions with the project team. There was only one condition: No one was allowed to find solutions which would affect the scope or budget. Surprisingly enough, we hit it on the head. The programmer analysed his workload and found some programming that other programmers can handle with little training. Two programmers agreed to undergo training and compensate for the excess. Little under two week, crippling constraint disappeared. No one thought of revising project scope or budget.

As the example pointed out clearly, it is the decision we made that matter. Every decision has a support framework of our attitudes. Our attitudes are shaped by our experience, beliefs and our values. If, as the project manager, you can influence your team to have a real shift in their attitudes, outcome will be greatly changed.

Therefore, never ask what decisions you made about the constraint. Always inquire the predominant thinking that went behind the decision, instead. Weaker foundations do not support strong structures.


Decisions will only be meaningful when they are backed by actions. Decisions to be effective, all members must agree to work on them. Looking back, it may not be difficult to find many decisions you never acted on. In dealing with constraints, the third step is the commitment of your team to go with the decision. Everyone needs to realize the logic behind the decision and why they should back it.

It is all about system orientation and commitment. As we discussed above, the new way of focusing on the constraint looks at constraints as manageable. Decisions made with that outlook facilitate action. Action oriented decisions will remarkably increase a team’s involvement and responsibility for what is decided to do.

This is a simple truth that has a profound effect on project success. Your members will go with you as long as your decisions can be interpreted in a tangible form while specific outcome is well defined. Another equally important factor is the team’s collective perception of the validity of this output. This perception can only be made possible by enlightening your team members to the contribution it makes to the whole system.

Our new thinking will help. Constraints, when seen as manageable entities, everyone is empowered to action. Nothing works like success. So build a successful track record and your team will coordinate and support.


The fourth step in focussing on constraints is all about making necessary systems adjustments. As we are well aware, a change in one component will unsettle the system as a whole. Be prepared to face it. In systems theory, we talk about a point of equilibrium in which the system settles to stable state when a change is made. When dealing with the constraint, we have to make changes in several major components. These changes will make the constraint disappear and host of other constraints appear. Systems anyhow will settle to a stable state.

It is not the simple commonplace actions that are necessary to deal with constraints in the new approach. We need massive actions. Major changes as never expected before. These changes need courage and determination to work on. If a decision is taken to allow some of your project members to telecommute as part of dealing with a project constraint, you will inevitably make major changes in company’s work policy. These decisions will involve tough negotiation with other departments. You, as a project manager, will have to convince your superiors about your decisions’ relevance and importance. The real test of a project manager is his level of proficiency in getting the consent of all involved in implementing major changes.

Situation is not simple. It is a new way of thinking that others are not very comfortable with. They, at least subconsciously, are trying to settle in old groves. Temporary states of instability of the system could make anyone go crazy and lose patience. Nevertheless, if you have the right vision and if you know what you are doing, you will overcome all the difficulties. You will be the winner.


As we saw earlier, constraints are not static roadblocks that we can simply remove and contend that they will never come again. Project constraints are highly dynamic and do appear in many forms with varying level of difficulty and severity. That is the very reason for applying the fifth step of repeating the process.

The project needs a system or mechanism to constantly go through the process of identifying constraints quickly and apply the necessary thinking. With experience, your project team will become experts in applying the new thinking.

Remember you never want to be the creator of another brand new constraint: Delaying the application of the new thinking or taking proper actions.


The new thinking reinforced by new paradigm, no doubt, will elevate you and your project to a powerful new level. Your team will learn the value of changing their mindset. A new paradigm will take its place.

There is one more step that you can take. It will make you a ‘super power’ in dealing with constraints. If you take your thinking to the next higher level, you will find a way to make the constraint a facilitator. That is by optimizing your constraints.

Few last words.

The new focus discussed here is all about thinking in systems. It is about changing attitudes. It is about looking at problems as something that can be solved.

Where do you have to start anyway ?

Your thoughts?

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