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Norma, chief technology officer for a midsize startup, stared at her computer screen in disbelief. “My people need how much money?” she said. “That’s like five times the budget I have to work with. My brilliant idea of letting them budget from what they really require rather than forcing themselves to fit into a specific amount is not working.”

She shook her head and sighed. “Staring at that number isn’t going to make it smaller. I don’t want to go back on my word with my people. I don’t know what to do. Time for a break.” She locked her computer and headed outside.

Going through the locker room—the quickest way out from her office, Norma ran into Letitia, one of the marketing managers. Almost literally.

“Hey, Norma, going for a walk?” Letitia asked as she maneuvered out of Norma’s way. “Want some company?”

“Hey, Letitia, sure, why not. Maybe you can fix my problem as easily as you avoided my near-collision.”

“Maybe we should head to the gym instead and put you through some agility drills,” Letitia teased as they headed out the door.

Too few constraints can be as limiting as too many

“So, what’s going on?” Letitia asked.

“Budgeting always takes so much time for my team,” Norma responded. “I hate making them force their requirements into an arbitrary number. I feel like that forces them to fight against each other. That goes opposite to the collaboration we otherwise are so good at fostering. So, this year I told them to tell me what they need.”

“And that didn’t work out the way you expected?”

“It did, so far as encouraging them to work together. They came up with some really innovative solutions to the work we have on our plate for the next twelve months. But the amount of money it all adds up to…I don’t have nearly that much budget.”

“So, in an attempt to give them more freedom, you removed all constraints and hoped for the best?”

“I guess you could say that,” Norma agreed. “It sounds pretty stupid when you put it like that.”

“I feel for you. As it happens, I’m also right there with you. We tried that with our twelve-year-old. Meaning to encourage his self-drive—and sooooo tired of fighting with him over bedtimes and chores—we asked him to come up with a plan. He came back with homeschooling and hiring a maid.”

Norma guffawed. “Sorry, I don’t mean to laugh,” she said, contradicting herself with continued chuckles.

“No, it’s okay. My husband and I had a hearty laugh, too, once we got past the ridiculousness of the situation. Our son had solid reasoning behind his plan. Completely disconnected from reality, mind you. Solid otherwise, however.”

“That’s how I feel with the plan my people gave me. Solid reasoning, and completely disconnected from reality. They know what our budget has been for the past several years. How they could imagine we might get five times that this year, I can’t imagine.”

Let your curiosity help you discover what you misunderstand

“So, what are you going to do with your son?” Norma asked Letitia.

“We had a family discussion. As he explained how he came to his plan, we discovered that much of our conflict arose from him feeling like he always needed to ask permission. He wanted to feel more autonomy. We also discovered he didn’t understand our reasons for imposing the rules we had given him.”

“That sounds like a productive conversation. I should do that with my team. I bet we’re laboring under similar misapprehensions.”

“I bet you are,” Letitia agreed. “In my experience, every time more than one person is in the room, some level of misunderstanding occurs. Non-trivial amounts, often.”

“It’ll be great to better understand where we each come from. I’d like more assurance that we’ll come out of that meeting with a better plan, though.”

Remove as many constraints as possible, but not too many

“So did we,” Letitia confirmed. “We tried a bunch of different things and didn’t get very far. Then, we decided to go at it from each end: start with what we had been doing and remove as many constraints as we could stand, and simultaneously go from our son’s proposal and apply the minimum number of constraints we required. This took days. But we ended up with something much simpler and more palatable to all of us.”

Norma nodded her head thoughtfully. “I like that. Remove as many constraints as we can stand, and keep just those constraints we require. That seems a better approach than what we’ve done in the past and what I tried this year.”

They continued along in silence for a while. Then, Norma said, “What you said about autonomy and permission has been bouncing around my brain. My ideal solution might be something like: purchasing decisions below a certain amount are wholly up to the person making the decision. Above that amount, the person asks for advice. And, instead of parceling our budget out to me and my team, and then my managers do the same for them and their team, and so on down the line, we just have a single big bucket for the entire org. This gives us total flexibility to make decisions as we go, rather than attempting to forecast what will make sense ahead of time. It also encourages, maybe even requires, high levels of collaboration.”

Norma paused a moment, then continued, “It’s probably too naïve. I’m sure there are all sorts of reasons why this would be orders of magnitude worse than our typical budgeting process. It would be an interesting exercise to start there and then determine the minimum constraints we must add to make it workable.”

“You might want to also go from the other direction,” Letitia reminded Norma. “Start with your current process and remove as many constraints as possible. Maybe you’ll end up in the same place. Or maybe you’ll end up somewhere completely different.”

“Thanks for that reminder, Letitia. If we end up in the same place, that confirms that place is sensible. If we end up somewhere different, we have more options.”

Jiggle your blocks by jiggling your constraints

Norma and Letitia were almost back to their building. “Want to stop at the fruit stand before we go back?” Letitia asked.

“Definitely,” Norma replied. “They had pawpaws this morning. I haven’t had those in ages.”

They altered direction a bit as Norma started salivating, thinking about fresh pawpaws. Then she interrupted her reverie.

“Thank you, Letitia, for asking to come along with me. Your suggestion to remove as many constraints as I can stand and keep only those constraints that are absolutely necessary has jiggled me out of my quandary. I’m excited to put these ideas into action.”

“You are so welcome, Norma. I’m glad I could help. Now, please explain what a pawpaw is. I’m always on the lookout for new food to try.”

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