Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Soft vs. Hard constraints

​Last week, at a meeting to prepare for an on-site kickoff with a client, I was asked if I had any real-life examples of the "squishy rules"​ I wanted to discuss with the customer. At first nothing was coming to mind, but my airline helpfully solved that problem for me on my way to the kickoff.

After I had started my first flight, my second flight was cancelled. I found myself in the customer service line behind several other people also trying to figure out how to satisfy their constraints and priorities in the best way possible (scheduled meetings the next day, no private jets, how far were they willing to drive a rental car). What struck me was how much those constraints and priorities varied among the 4 people ahead of me in line. Some people were fine with getting in the next night, others (like me) were willing to give up anything except being on time the next day.

Now, you may have noticed above that I combined constraints and priorities into a single list. When I had booked my flight, I chose to fly to the actual city I was headed to. Once that flight was cancelled, I had a choice to make. What used to be two hard constraints now gave me zero "feasible solutions" -- I could either miss one day of the one-and-a-half day kickoff, or I needed to fly to a different city. Now, some very creative people find themselves in this situation and will fly to some other middle city and then to their destination. But my airline either didn't or couldn't suggest those options, and if you had asked me before the cancellation if I would consider a 3-leg trip, I would have given a flat no. So if I had no possible solutions, what could I do?

Well, this happens a lot. People will often list their preferences as needs until pressed. And as long as there is a feasible solution, it doesn't have to become obvious. One of the people ahead of me in line chose not to give up any of their hard constraints, which meant there were still no options available. It was obvious that something had to give unless the goal had changed -- nevermind, I didn't need to go to that city after all. But knowing which of your rules to turn "squishy" is the key to still achieving your goal.

In my case, I flew to a neighboring city instead. In fact, my boss had flown directly to my alternate city and planned from the start to drive the remaining distance -- he had never made flying to the final city a constraint. As a result of this experience I also finally bought some plane tickets for the summer I had been putting off for weeks. I am now flying to the 2-hour-away airport for less than half the price of the tickets to the actual city.

Have you ever realized you were overconstraining your problem? Which constraints turned out to be a lot squishier than you realized?

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