There’s a well-regarded school of thought that constraints are made to keep us from dreaming “too big”.

Dreaming too big with Helprace photo credit Dave C

There’s an equally strong idea that constraints are a fact of life and looking at them the right way spurs creativity and ingenuity.

In 1930, a young teacher in Uruguay, Jean Carlos Ceriari created a new sport. He wanted the game to be similar to soccer, but at the same time playable in small YMCA courts. As a result, he took a number of elements from soccer, basketball (most notably, placing 5 players per team), water polo and handball. The result?

Something that came to be known as futsal – derived from Spanish futbol de salon or football in a room.

The game thrives on constraints that make soccer impractical. For example, futsal players use a ball with less bounce, make use of 20-minute halves versus 45 minutes in soccer. This all means that futsal is a more intense game: there’s less distance to cover between nets and much more contact with the ball (reportedly 5 times that of soccer). There’s more emphasis on ball handling and technical skills as players transition from attack to defense in a confined space.

Futsal constraints

photo credit Kai Hendry

The game caught on like wildfire in Brazil where space constraints in urban settlements paved for its quick adoption. It turns out that the skills young players learned by playing futsal made them excel in soccer, too.

Constraints in one area build strengths elsewhere

We don’t always understand the proper definition of a constraint. To many, the word is associated with setback in the form of some insurmountable obstacle that limits our ability to do whatever we set out to do.

Here’s another example.

The 24 hours of Le Mans is a grueling competition that is designed to test a car’s reliability in relation to its speed and handling. In 2005, Bentley won, and the Audi team was determined to beat them no matter what. It was an impossible task. The Automobile Club de l’Ouest, the regulatory body for Le Mans, placed restrictions on the engine and minimum weight for the for Audi’s outgoing model.

Audi is winning with R10

photo credit David Merrett

In 2006, Audi won – and two years after that. This led to BMW and Mercedes withdrawing from the race entirely, unable to make up for the time they lost.

What was their secret?

Audi engineers developed a diesel technology powered car (the R10) that was able to spend less time in the pits and more time getting catching up to competitors in similarly powered cars. This gamble on diesel technology was driven entirely by constraints, which wouldn’t be possible if Audi’s team wasn’t faced with such pressing challenges.

Constraints can be used as opportunities

Although difficult, you can lessen the impact of constraints by simply looking at them as part of a solution to a problem. More often than not, constraints allow you to discover inner passions that keep you going. How far are you willing to go to overcome the odds and persevere?

Michael Johansson, a Dutch artist was faced with numerous constraints: small spaces, limited materials in the form of discarded or donated objects. So he took all of these constraints and turned them into art.

Constraints in art

What’s impressive about Michael’s work is how he makes use of things that act as obstacles to what he’s trying to accomplish. So much so, that these obstacles take the form of his artwork.

Running a small business is something similar.

It’s a challenging yet rewarding undertaking. It’s a time when founders are forced to stay small due to constraints, necessitating thinking outside the box and making painful changes to stay afloat.

  • the need to work on side projects or separate money-making streams from referral-generating streams
  • accounting for time differences, particularly with remote teams or when working with overseas clients
  • lack of outside funding forces businesses to cut back on capabilities and growth plans
  • small teams make it difficult to maintain quick development turnaround and time-to-market

These restrictions can be traced back to three resources businesses need to make their most of: team, money and product.

The constraint of team

How do I reach my goal without the right team?

Sometimes, even a small team may prove to be more trouble than they’re worth.

Jeff Bezos of Amazon had a 2 pizza rule – if you have a team that requires more than two pizzas to feed, that team is too big. While large companies may be able to get away with managing larger teams, smaller companies are constantly seen as having better customer engagement.

In addition, tiny companies benefit from highly productive workforces while larger companies are subject to groupthink. As certain team members sit idle they throw the “hot potato” to the next person. This dissolves responsibility and increases overconfidence, an overlooked evil inherent to larger teams.

Applying this at your business:

Small teams often tend to demand a lot out of each other. It keeps our roles rightly defined so that things done and deadlines are met without much wasted back-and-forth. Managing remote teams scattered all over the globe can be another constraint in itself. Keeping communication channels and efficiency at the top of the agenda is key.

Another thing about small teams is that they are approachable, and customers tend to trust them more.

The constraint of money

We get it, money is hard to come by. As a result, you have to think about how to make do with what you have – and how to improve existing processes.

A bottlenecked resource’s time is the most valuable resource to optimize. – Ash Maurya

Entrepreneurs should consider their own shortcomings, no matter how discouraging – as a blessing in disguise. There are hidden benefits to being underfunded, for example. When every penny counts, businesses tend to spend wisely, work more efficiently and make careful growth decisions.

That is, instead of worrying about attending every industry conference or upgrading our coffee machine more often that we should.

Applying this at your business:

We all know that in order to make money we have to spend a bit of money first. There are A/B tests to do, market research to perform and various growth strategies to implement.

Bouncing ideas around with our customer base first doesn’t cost anything. By offering users a solution in a customer community, you’ll able to take the guess work out of our customer and market assumptions and take logical next steps on the roadmap.

All of this without a penny spent.

The constraint of product

Entrepreneurs often run into roadblocks consisting of limited time, manpower and funding. So when they’re confronted with launching a product, they get busy identifying the type of work they need done and the time it takes to do it – which invariably leads them to unloading responsibility on hiring teams or seek out funding sources to push their idea to fruition.

Applying this at your business:

Every startup thinks being in Silicon Valley is their initial stepping stone to success.

Just as you don’t need money or a large team to test a product, you don’t need to be in Silicon Valley, either. Try to leverage your geographical location to reach out to local communities your product could be useful in. You don’t need a working product to study problem points that people in your immediate network have – and ways you can address them.

Focus on what you’re offering, not what’s stopping you

Futsal was developed out of a constraint that Ceriari faced. Little did he know that former futsal players would go on become future world soccer champions.

Besides, having a starting point instead of a blank canvas gives you a podium to bounce (and branch off) other ideas, which can open up new avenues to tackling your constraints.

I’m not saying walk into every difficult situation and expect to embrace every bad thing about it. On the contrary, once you realize that every problem has a solution, you’ll be that much closer to succeeding.

(This article was originally published on the Helprace blog)