Expose Your Constraints Before Chasing Additional Resources

Constraints are gifts.

We all hustle, struggle and fight to acquire more project resources. But ironically, when we have these resources in excess, we don’t become efficient. We become wasteful.

Much has been written about how limiting choices and constraints force the requisite creativity needed to innovate. I’d take this further:

Constraints force the requisite focus needed to innovate.

This is especially true today, where we have gone from a scarcity economy to an abundance economy. Tools, knowledge, and capital are more accessible than ever. But we’re still largely running off an old playbook.

Very few people deliberately choose to limit their resources. In this post, I will make a case for doing just that. Let’s start by identifying the true nature of the most commonly sought-after resources: money, people, and time.

Money is an accelerant

Money is a special kind of resource. It is useful only when it is converted to something else. More money lets us hire more people, buy more equipment, build more features, etc.

But if you don’t yet know what you are doing, you’ll probably just get lost faster. Every innovation starts with an external constraint — market demand. Until you can demonstrate enough market demand for your idea, any energy spent on acquiring internal constraints (like money, people, equipment, or product) should be challenged.

Even when you do know what you are doing, upgrading on all fronts at once risks falling into a local or pre-optimization trap. For these reasons, it is best to think of money as an accelerant. Money only lets you do more of whatever you are already doing. Figuring out the right thing to do first is more important.

Start with the smallest possible complete team

Yes, it would be best if you had people for your project but here, too, quality trumps quantity. There is a corollary to Metcalfe’s law that applies to teams:

“The efficiency of a team is approximately the inverse of the square of the number of members in the team.”
- Marc Hedlund

Simply adding more people decreases team efficiency. This is why Jeff Bezos instituted a two-pizza team rule at Amazon: Any team should be small enough to be fed with two pizzas.

Furthermore, it is far better to have a complete team than a big team. Think in terms of requisite skill sets (design, development, marketing) than in terms of titles. You might find these skills across one person or five people.

Time only moves in one direction

Of all the resources, time is the scarcest. While money and people can fluctuate up and down, time moves only in one direction. For this reason, I prioritize it above all other resources.

In an abundance economy, speed (not money) is the new currency.

But here, too, we often find ourselves negotiating for more time to be added to the schedule when we should be doing the exact opposite.

“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.” — LEONARD BERNSTEIN

Less is not always more

I’m not simply advocating a blatant “less is more” approach because less doesn’t always lead to more. There comes a time when “more is more.”

When there is high uncertainty, it is prudent to limit resources until you gain more certainty. When you do, the right action often is to double down from there and scale up on the necessary resources.

But how do you know how and when to make these trade-offs? The answer lies in systematically limiting another key resource: your customer throughput.

Customer throughput is the rate at which you create customers.

Limit customer throughput to expose the right constraints

Every business is the business of making customers. Think of this as building a customer factory.

We all want our ideas to go from zero to a million customers overnight. But we don’t scale physical factories this way, nor should we scale our customer factories. Instead, deliberately limit your starting run size or customer throughput. For example, aim to create just ten customers within a small time box, like two weeks.

The small time-box constraint forces you to think creatively:

  • Can’t build a full product in 2 weeks. Build an MVP.
  • Don’t know what should be in the MVP, start with a demo.
  • Still not sure. Start with a Problem/Solution interview.

The small customer throughput goal allows you to defer other resource needs (like money, equipment, and people) to later.

If you don’t hit the customer throughput goal by the time box, explore why. This will help expose the right constraint. Then address it.

Maybe you couldn’t get to the right buyer at the company, which indicates a channel constraint. You might address it by supplementing your team with an adviser from the industry or hiring another team member.

If and when you do hit the customer throughput goal, level up from there.

This time, aim for 100 customers within another small time-box.

Your business model is a system, and it will talk back to you. Use this to uncover the constraints holding you back, then acquire the right resources (if needed) to break those constraints. Not before. Rinse and repeat.

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