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Understanding Constraints: Ask “What If…”

When working on a change initiative, it’s important to understand any underlying constraints that need to be taken into account.  There can be a variety of different types of constraints, but time and budget are two that feature heavily in many projects.  I suppose it’s theoretically possible to work in an organization where there’s too much time and money, but I suspect most of us find we work on initiatives that are squeezed within ambitious timescales with very restricted budgets. As change practitioners, we probably find ourselves trying to work as effectively and efficiently within these constraints.

However, not all constraints are created equally.  Some constraints are genuinely well considered and there will be real consequences if they are broken.  I remember working on a project where there was a contractual penalty if delivery did not take place on a particular date and the client had no appetite to delay.  There was a clear logical argument to spend more in the short term to hit the date; any extra spend that was less than the contractual penalty was good value.  Yet, other constraints seem less well thought out.

I feel like I’m breaking a secret BA code by saying this out loud: but I suspect some constraints are completely arbitrary in nature.  I suspect some deadlines were dreamt up in meetings months ago, before anyone knew the level of complexity or the context of the delivery.  Yet somehow those deadlines got written down as if they are the immutable truth. To question them is to act as a heretic… even though nobody can actually remember why the date was chosen or why it is so important.

A key question that can help us to seek clarity is “What are the key outcomes and benefits you’re aiming for?” These should be understood well before any heavy-lifting commences, but so often they are only loosely understood.  And different stakeholders may have very different perspectives on what success looks like, so getting these out on the table is so very useful.  Ultimately, the aims affect the constraints.  If someone is aiming to be “first to market” that might imply that time is everything, and getting something out the door as soon as possible (even if it’s not the finished product) would be desirable.  On the other hand, if the aim is to be the best in the market that will lead to a focus on quality, perhaps delaying until every necessary bell and whistle is thoroughly tested.


Understanding Constraints With “What If..”

Understanding the aims, outcomes, and benefits is a start.  In addition to this, two powerful words that can help gain a shared understanding of constraints are “what if…”.  When we have rapport with our stakeholders we can ask questions out of a genuine sense of curiosity.  We can ask questions that are framed very much as ‘thought experiments’ to determine what is really important.  Here are a few examples:

  • “What if we could deliver a week or two late, but the cost was significantly lower. Would that be a good outcome for you?” If the answer is ‘yes’, then this indicated budget is valued over time, and the deadline isn’t as fixed as it appears
  • “What would happen if the deadline isn’t met?” There may be genuine consequences; asking this question will help us determine them.
  • “If it was a day late, would you still want it?” There are some things that are only valuable if they are delivered on a particular day. For example, delivering a livestreaming platform the day after a conference was supposed to happen is completely useless!
  • “What about if we released something earlier, with a smaller scope?” Perhaps the ultimate deadline can extend, but something gets released earlier. This can help determine the type of delivery approach that’s relevant.

These are just examples of course, but in essence, these questions seek to understand the rationale behind a constraint. If there is genuinely no rationale, then surely that is something that we should challenge?  If we understand which constraints are malleable and which are not, we can hopefully work with our stakeholders to co-create a solution that best meets their needs.

And the phrase “what if..” can help us a great deal with that!

What are your views on constraints?  Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIN and we can keep the conversation going!

Adrian Reed

Adrian Reed is a true advocate of the analysis profession. In his day job, he acts as Principal Consultant and Director at Blackmetric Business Solutions where he provides business analysis consultancy and training solutions to a range of clients in varying industries. He is a Past President of the UK chapter of the IIBA® and he speaks internationally on topics relating to business analysis and business change. Adrian wrote the 2016 book ‘Be a Great Problem Solver… Now’ and the 2018 book ‘Business Analyst’ You can read Adrian’s blog at and follow him on Twitter at