In my last post I talked about the importance of building your influence with the decision makers in your company. Today I’m going to show you how to handle multiple possible constraints.

If you’ve been following my advice, you’ve taken an interest in figuring out how your company actually works. You’ve probably found lots of things happening in your company that could be improved. Perhaps you’ve created a current reality tree or used the “5 whys” technique to drill down and find what you think might be the constraint in your company. Or maybe you drilled down and found a couple things that look like they might be the constraint but you’re not sure how to figure out which one is your actual constraint.

If this sounds like your situation, read on.

How to handle multiple possible constraints

There should only be one constraint operating in your company at any given time but the constraint can move around as conditions change. Your first task is to eliminate candidate constraints that are unlikely to be the constraint.

Eliminate unlikely constraints

You can discard some constraints pretty easily. If any of the following are true, this is probably not your constraint:

  • the solution is trivial and straightforward. (The easy problems are seen and fixed in even the most dysfunctional organizations–the real problems are deeper)
  • if you can find another level of causality below the candidate constraint.  (The lower level is more likely to be the constraint)
  • the candidate constraint only explains a small number of undesirable effects (problems) you’ve identified during your analysis. (At least 70% of your undesirable effects should be explained by the potential constraint)
  • knowledgeable co-workers don’t agree with your assessment after you lay out your reasoning. (Be suspicious of a candidate constraint that only you can see)

This should leave you with, at most, a couple of good candidates for your company’s constraint.

What to do if you still have multiple possible constraints

At this point, finding your actual constraint probably doesn’t matter that much. If you’ve got two or three candidate constraints to study and analyze, you’ll certainly be looking at important issues for your company. So don’t worry to much about which one is the true constraint.

In all likelihood, overcoming your constraint (or any of a handful of candidates) is beyond your influence as a humble small business programmer. Your mindset is the important thing here, not the absolute correctness of your analysis.

Short term actions for handling multiple possible constraints

When I was a teenager, I used to play quest games on my family computer. I spent quite a lot of time exploring the game world as I tried to figure out how to finish my quest. I’d collect tools, weapons, gold, spells, knowledge, and new skills while I explored. The quest games forced me to do all that exploring and collecting so I would have the knowledge and tools I needed to complete my quest.

You’re in a similar position. You’re on a quest to find and break the constraint in your company. But there isn’t a direct path from where you are now to your objective. So you’ve got to explore, build alliances, collect knowledge and wisdom, grow your influence, and learn new skills to get yourself prepared to complete your quest.

Your short term actions can include:

Long term actions for handling multiple possible constraints

In the long term, you’ll want to figure out which of your candidate constraints is the actual constraint, make a plan to overcome it, gain support for your plan, and execute that plan. Your goal is to complete your quest.

Exercise Caution

I want you to exercise caution when following my advice. I’m trying to help you become a wildly successful small business programmer. Getting yourself into trouble by digging around in your company and saying or doing the wrong thing could be quick route to unemployment.

One particular kind of problem you might run into is a ‘sacred cow.’ A sacred cow is an activity or function of your company that doesn’t make sense but can’t be changed. Maybe you use a supplier that treats you like crap. Or maybe all your marketing budget goes to newspaper ads but your customers moved onto the internet 20 years ago. These things don’t make sense but nobody in your company has the power to change them.

Be very careful with these kinds of situations. You might learn that the supplier who treats you like crap is owned by your boss’s brother-in-law or something. So watch what you say to whom and beware of sacred cows.

I’d also encourage you to check your assumptions. Get a reality check from someone who knows what’s going on. Toss ideas around and see what other people think. I’ve encountered some really bizarre situations during my career that turned out to have complicated, yet extremely logical, explanations. Things aren’t always as they first appear.

Furthermore, it’s almost always a mistake to assume that the people around you don’t know what they’re doing. The safest assumption you can make is that most people are reasonably competent and rational and that they are responding to incentives and/or objectives beyond your awareness. Think of it as your own version of innocent until proven guilty.

Wrapping up

Finding and overcoming your company’s constraint is an ambitious endeavor for anyone. But it’s a particularly challenging goal for a small business programmer.

You likely don’t have the skills or the influence to identify and go straight after your company’s constraint and overcome it. But if you adjust your mindset and take a long-term view you can get there. And you’ll pick up valuable skills and knowledge along the way.

You’ll learn about and work on all kinds of interesting projects and I can pretty much guarantee you’ll feel like you’re making a real difference. And even if you move on to another company before you overcome your constraint, you can take your new skills and mindset with you and market yourself as a genuine 10x small business programmer.

In my next post, I’ll show you how to choose your first project. Stay tuned.