Good constraints provide the freedom to fully explore a problem or solution space.

The Lovely Willamette in Late July

Constraints Series

Follow along as we expore the nature and importance of constraints when creating and evaluating systems.

Let the Kids Play

In 2006 the American Society of Landscape Architects published a study which explored the effects of a simple constraint on how children behave in a playground environment.

Teachers were to take their children to a local playground in which there was no fence during their normal recess hour. The kids were to play as normal. The same group was to be taken to a comparable playground in which there was a defined border designated by a fence.

The researchers in this study found that

with a boundary, in this case the fence, the children felt at ease to explore the space.

Individals often see constraints as frustrating obstacles. This study demonstrates that a certain class of constraints provides liberation.

Liberating Constraints

Good system design requires adherence to liberating constraints. Such constraints can fall into various categories such as:

  • Standards
  • Contracts
  • Service Level Agreements (SLAs)
  • Service Level Objectives (SLOs)
  • Resource Availability
  • Resource Cost
  • Timeframes
  • Risk Tolerance

Simply defining constraints along such lines does not in and of itself ensure that the constraints will prove helpful. Poorly worded and unclear standards lead to inconsistent interpretations and implementations. Highly restrictive standards prevent innovation and hamper flexibility. Ambiguous SLAs provide little value at best and a mess of confusion at worst. Overly ambitious SLAs can lead to overengineering and large, unnecessary cost overruns. Basically both ends of the spectrum share a common problem: high cost with little benefit.

In contrast, liberating constraints act like the fence in the study referenced above. A liberating constraint lets the kids feel free to roam about the entire playground. In a similar fashion, good constraints provide the freedom to fully explore a problem or solution space.

Design Before Technology

The next step is to take a step back and look at constraints through the lens of Design Before Technology.