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Constraint Maps

Bringing the right approach to the situation (or context) is central to the challenge of driving change.

The Cynefin model is a sense-making framework (developed by David Snowden) that helps characterize a situation or context into a domain that can steer toward appropriate behavior.

Source: EU Field Guide

When they are disrupted, or going through a transformation, modern organizations can find themselves in the complex domain, where causality is hard to pin down, and adaptive methods are needed.

In these settings, defining a desired future state is not effective. As Tom Kerwin wrote: 

“It’s almost orthodoxy in much of the design and product world now that we should be working to desired outcomes rather than desired outputs. Of course - you define what you want to have happen, then work backwards from there to deduce what you need to do. But when you’re working in complexity, which is most of the time — as soon as you’ve got people in the equation, BOOM, complexity — it’s literally impossible to know in advance what’s going to work… It’s neither ‘just set goals/OKRs’ nor ‘just do anything LOL’. Instead: do the next right thing to affect the evolutionary potential of the present.” (“A Trip into the Estuary”, Tom Kerwin)

In these contexts, change leaders should seek to “probe” the system, with a varied set of small changes or “micro-nudges”, and then monitor the results. But before thinking about change, they need to create a shared understanding of the current state, with a focus on understanding the current system in terms of its constraints.

What is a constraint?

Most of us associate negative connotations with a constraint. It is something that inhibits or restricts. If you are familiar with Eli Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints, you know that he framed constraints as a source of bottlenecks that should be removed to increase flow.

Here we use “constraint” in a more general sense, encompassing both positive, or enabling, constraints as well as restrictive, or governing, constraints. With this definition, we find that constraints are everywhere:

“We set constraints by defining and enforcing governance systems, decision making processes, spaces and methods for interaction, physical infrastructures, and by accepting behaviors, rituals, needs, etc.”  - EU Field Guide

In an enterprise, we can look for constraints everywhere we see boundaries within the organization:

“In organizational terms, we set boundaries and constraints every time we assemble a business unit or define its roles and prescribe what it may, should, and must do. We also set boundaries when we combine several units and decide the protocols for their communication, including frequency, tone, and information channels. Formalized processes, timeframes, and milestones are boundaries. Beliefs and assumptions that drive definitions, categories, and classifications are boundaries that are an example of a rigid constraint.” - EU Field Guide

Why focus on constraints?

In a complex adaptive system (e.g. many modern enterprises), constraints offer something we can “see” and manage. The approaches we used in clear and complicated domains allowed us to assume some linear causality between our actions and our outcomes. Those clear causal relationships are thrown out the window when we operate in complex domains.

In complex adaptive systems, autonomous agents (i.e. individuals, teams, or departments serving as “components”) influence the behaviors and structure above them (i.e. the shape of the hierarchies of the “whole”), while in turn being influenced by constraints set by the system.

As Alicia Juarrero explained in “Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System”:

“Since the active power that wholes exert on their components is clearly not the gocart-like collisions of a mechanical universe, the causal mechanism at work between levels of hierarchical organization can better be understood as the operations of constraint.  Constraints are therefore relational properties that parts acquire in virtue of being unified—not just aggregated—into a systematic whole.”

Constraints help us bring systems thinking to the conversation, regardless of domain:

“The constraints that wholes impose on their parts are restrictive insofar as they reduce the number of ways in which the parts can be arranged, and conservative in the sense that they are in the service of the whole. But they are also creative in a different, functional sense: those previously independent parts are now components of a larger system and as such have acquired new functional roles. The newly created overall system, too, has greater potential than the independent, uncorrelated components.”

So managing constraints helps us shift from simple, linear “billiard-ball” thinking about causality to a more probabilistic (and less deterministic) approach to change. In this sense, a constraint is something that influences the probability of events, or the probability landscape of what might happen next.

Constraint Mapping

A constraint map helps a group of leaders get to a shared understanding of the current situation, as-is, with an assessment of these existing (and possibly changing) boundaries.

As Snowden explains:

“Constraint mapping aims to attune decision makers to path-dependent features of the underlying territory (including deployable resources) which might otherwise be overlooked. This explicitly addresses Inattentional blindness arising from preoccupation with self-evident affordances (considered as solicitations to action) and involves a pause on the part of any decision maker lurching towards doing ‘the next right thing.’ “

Starting with a map of the current constraints supports better dialog, to get situational awareness, before making choices about change. It also encourages delegation of the change decisions, when appropriate, and drives discussion of how the impact of the changes can (should) be monitored. This deliberate, collaborative pause between assessment and action is the remedy to the “inattentional blindness” Snowden references above. The pause “also allows us to reduce conflict around decision-making in environments with multiple, strong viewpoints on what should be done.”

The constraint map identifies constraints and assesses the relative cost of (possible) change to the constraints:

Each element placed on the map is a specific constraint, identified by the group creating the map. Constraints are relative to the group defining the map. The diagram shows generic elements, but a “real” map would reference specific examples that the group suggests.

Placement on the map is driven by the relative cost-of-change for the constraint, in two dimensions:

  • Cost-to-change in terms of the time (or duration) required to make a change
  • Cost-of-change in terms of the energy (effort, money, cognitive load) required to make a change

Constraints that cluster in the upper right are those that are perceived as “impossible to change” by the group building the map. Constraints that cluster in the bottom left are those that are volatile - they are easy to change, so they tend to change frequently (and drive the conversation to monitoring of changes).

The Cynefin group is building their version of constraint mapping, called Estuarine Mapping, that emphasizes the use of metaphor to elicit the identification of constraints. Facilitation in this approach intentionally strays from “leading the witness” to organizational examples (like shown above) and instead uses metaphors from nature (like seawalls and marshes) and a general typology (shown below) to intentionally increase the cognitive load of the participants, and pull them out of their normal ways of thinking.

Typology of constraints (see Constraint Mapping for more detail)

  • Robust/Resilient
  • Enabling/Governing
  • Internal/External
  • Connecting/Containing
  • Rigid/Flexible/Permeable

Source: Managing complexity (and chaos) in times of crisis. A field guide for decision makers inspired by the Cynefin

Learning this typology and the metaphors from nature and ecological settings forces leaders to bring a “fresh set of eyes” to their environment. 

The kinds of constraints that emerge from this exercise include:

  • Rituals - these allow for creation of informal networks
  • Heuristics - these create simple rules and principles to guide decnetralized decisions
  • Organizational structure - these are usually hard to change - remember that changing connections between people and teams is less costly than re-orgs
  • Beliefs - these are often invisible, yet powerful, constraints
  • Feedback - these are the constraints of history, that incorporate the past into the system’s present structure

Creating a Constraint Map

As a facilitator, you can use some variation on these steps to help a working group build a constraint map, from their perspective:

  1. Pre-process: set a scope based on a theme or question, then engage before the map-building workshop. The pre-activity can vary from allowing participants to deliver presentations of their current work across the diverse group (to expose tensions) to collecting narratives (asynchronously and anonymously) from participants, capturing trouble spots or sources of friction.
  2. Identify the constraints: brainstorm the top-of-mind constraints influencing behaviors across the group, but be sure to clarify “constraint” in the general (not purely negative sense) first.
  3. Position on the map: plot the cost of change for time and energy, from the perspective of the group building the map.
  4. Draw the “counterfactual” border: this is the line that defines what the group will place “off limits” for change. Allow for some refinement of positioning as the line is drawn.
  5. Draw the “volatile” border: this is the line that defines what the group feels is so easy to change that they can not be controlled or managed (the changes themselves can be good or bad, so focus on understanding their impact). 
  6. Acting on constraints: the zone between the borders identified where the group can operate strategically. Define interventions that could strengthen or destroy constraints, as micro-projects or experiments.
  7. Set a direction of travel: Identify strategic themes of movement, from the positions on the map, given by the most promising micro-project ideas.
  8. Combine the micro-projects into portfolios: Encourage parallel experiments that probe the system in different ways, and manage (monitor) them as a portfolio, seeking shared objectives for the changes.

Source: Estuarine mapping 


David Snowden, the originator of constraint mapping, stresses that while he has been developing this idea behind Estuarine Mapping for over 7 years, it is still evolving in practice. Keep an eye out for updates on their ongoing learning, and contribute your own insights if you try it!

In his words, for the best approach to driving change in complex domains: 

“The philosophy is simple: find out where you are and what is possible before you leap into the whole vision and goals thing.”