(If you’re not an expert,) embrace constraints

(If you’re not an expert,) embrace constraints

May 14, 2013

When solving CIDNI problems, constraints are those factors that can reduce your solution space, such as the money, time, expertise, etc. at your disposal. Too many constraints will reduce your solution space so much that you might not find a satisfactory solution.

But not enough constraints can be crippling too: If you start with a blank page, everything can be a solution and you might fall victim of paralysis by analysis where you're afraid to move in one direction because it would close doors in other directions.

See constraints as enablers

So there is value in having some constraints. In fact, I'd argue that the less you know what you're doing, the more beneficial constraints are. To illustrate, think of how we learned to draw.

As a kid, my parents bought me some books with shapes in them, and I started by coloring within the shapes. Those shapes were pretty significant constraints, but they were fitting considering my skill level. Sure, I couldn't draw a dinosaur if the shape was that of monkey, but I got to decide which parts of the monkey should be bright orange.

Then I got those books where there were dots all over the page, each with a number. Before drawing, I had to connect the dots to create the shape. Arguably that was more for me to learn how to count than to draw, but I also got to decide which dots I left out, thereby getting some control on the shape I was creating. And, once I created a shape, I got to color it too. Those were less constraining setups, but still significantly constraining.

A few years later, at Rice, I took a couple of drawing classes with Basilios Poulos. For a specific drawing, Bas would tell us what medium to draw with or he would bring a model to the class and that would be our subject. Those were still constraints, but, again, we were freer.You could continue this up until you remove all constraints. Then you'd start with a blank page, as Picasso.

[IMAGE MISSING: picasso.png]
As an expert, Picasso had no problem starting with a blank page, but if you’re not there yet, having constraints might be a good thing

Picasso starts with a completely empty sheet and creates fantastic images but, well, he's Picasso. For the rest of us, starting with a blank page might just be a little too daunting.

So constraints will limit your independence, fine. But that limitation isn't necessarily bad. Especially if you're new to the type of problem you're addressing. So don't focus on what constraints prevent you from doing. Rather, think about what they enable you to do.


Chevallier, A. (2016). Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press.Image credit: 6689062/Pixabay.