In front of you sits a blank canvas. Ideas flow, and from them you can create anything you want. It can say, do, or be anything you imagine. The same is true for building a company. It can be anything. In the confines of the business world, though, a total freedom from constraints has its challenges. Trying to go from nothing to anything is an unproductive mindset. Because, while you can do anything you want, you can’t do everything.
A more constructive practice is to focus on going from nothing to something. We started ThreeFlow with a blank canvas, so we get to practice going from nothing to something every day.
There are far reaching impacts to the decisions we make, including who we hire, what we build, and how we reinforce culture. Regardless of scope, we always ask ourselves the same question: How do we start?
Since we’re constantly making these decisions, we’ve begun to apply a framework that’s helped us move forward. There are fancier, multi-step design thinking methods out there, but we haven’t found them to be a good fit. For example, Google’s design sprint is impressive, but devoting five days isn’t always possible for a small team.
Here are the two basic steps that work for us:
Step 1: Apply constraints
Step 2: Remove all other constraints
The first step is to clarify the problem and the decision to be made. Tactically speaking, this requires us to ask better questions in order to clarify the internal and external constraints that exist. A problem well put is half solved, so the more detailed the better. In this step we’re in the mindset of just wrestling the problem to the ground so we can look at it. Ideas are more clear in writing than in speech, so we document them together in a shared setting.
The “shared setting” part simply means putting our thoughts on a whiteboard or large monitor so that we can all see it. This allows anyone to easily chime in with corrections, follow-up questions, or modifications. We then edit the problem statement down to its simplest form. The goal of this exercise is to make sure we’re asking the best questions we can, and to ensure we’re all trying to solve the problem as a team. It isn’t about any one individual being right, sounding the smartest, or protecting egos.
The questions we ask are highly specific to the problem, but they tend to follow these themes:
Frequency — How often does this problem create challenges? (For example, every day, once a week, or just a few times a quarter?) This helps us determine urgency.
Duration — Is this a temporary or permanent problem? This allows us to determine if we should be seeking a temporary or permanent solution.
Severity — What is our risk tolerance for this problem? Here, we determine if should be trying to eliminate, transfer, or simply minimize the risk.
Impact — How will this improve the customer’s day? This helps us determine if we’re talking about a nice-to-have, must-have, or game-changing solution.
After clarifying and framing the problem, we move to Step 2.
Remove all other constraints. This is the fun part because the goal is to consider solutions that we haven’t yet thought of. We try to expand the goal posts of what’s possible here. This means that anything we haven’t stated as a constraint is fair game to be considered as part of the solution.
This requires a psychologically safe environment for people to share their ideas. We’ve learned that our language matters in order to accomplish that. The way a question is framed can deeply influence the responses you receive. We picked up the following phrase from a workshop, and it has worked well for us:
How might we [insert problem statement from step 1]?
We think it’s beautifully simple while creating a collaborative, open-minded environment. This generates healthy conversation and new ideas. The combination of these two steps is productive, it’s repeatable, and it works. Apply constraints, then remove all others.