Surfacing “Binding Constraints” In Everyday Life

evan-held-backImagine a car. It is comprised of a set of mechanical instruments that all function in a very specific way and interact with one another to set the vehicle in motion safely and consistently. And those mechanical instruments are exact copies of one another across identical makes and models.

Imagine that one or more of your tires are rumbling violently on the highway, making it difficult for you to drive in a straight line. Likely problems include a flat tire or misaligned wheels. A mechanic, by investigating, could identify which of a set of potential issues is the current problem, and then prescribe a solution tailored to that specific issue. If you have a flat, you repair the tire. If your wheels are misaligned, you realign them.

Let’s assume, in this case, your wheels were misaligned. Imagine that, as you drove away from the auto shop happily, having had your wheels realigned and the problem solved, another person pulled in and told the mechanic they were also experiencing violent rumbling of one or more of their tires, unaware that the issue is, this time, a flat tire. The mechanic, feeling overconfident after having addressed your issue just a moment before, might be apt to generalize and jump right into making sure the wheels were aligned, without first investigating.

Even as that person drove away, bumbling down the road with a flat tire still, the mechanic could take in more and more folks and send them on their way with their wheels realigned, thinking they were solving everyone’s problems with efficiency, when they were really only solving some percentage of cases the success of which had only to do with chance. They may even win an award from some fictional auto shop association for Most Efficient Repairperson in the business, despite not properly addressing a random set of their cases.

The case of vehicle malfunction is a relatively simple example, and the above hypothetical is most unlikely to occur in real life. However, it provides a productive framework for thinking about the issue of improvement and “repair”, generally speaking. When problem solving, decision makers are often inclined to apply solutions proven successful in previous situations if the current situation appears similar. As with our overconfident mechanic, decision makers can become overconfident in the potential for scaling solutions for efficiency even when the circumstances of many problems in life and society carry with them such unique underlying characteristics and internal interactions that, in fact, a past solution will not address the unique requirements of the new case.

Driving improvement of more complicated personal, organizational, or societal systems and interactions is truly a complicated task. The correct solution hardly ever reveals itself in an obvious fashion to the analyst. Despite our desire to simplify systems with generalizations, every system often requires a customized solution. It can be counterproductive, and indeed dangerous, to automatically apply one successful solution to another system without first addressing the underlying details of that specific system. With the case of the flat tire, the driver may find themselves in immediate physical danger because the mechanic jumped right into realigning their wheels.

In the case of a car, investigating and identifying the issue is relatively straightforward. The same task, however, is much more complicated for, say, an entire nation’s flagging economy.

This is hard work, of course, to address every new system so thoroughly, especially ones as large as an entire economy. Much more efficient, it seems, to get a general sense of a given situation and simply copy and paste a solution proven to work elsewhere.

But this manner of blind application proves far more difficult in practice. If a society suffers from racism and sexism, what’s the best way to improve upon such an ill? Say that, hypothetically, France greatly diminished prejudice in their society through education of youth. Does that mean we should, then, focus on educating our youth, which will ingrain the next generation with notions of equality and compassion? What if our youth, by nature of our society, are particularly more stubborn than French youth, and molded more by their parents’ morals than by the education system? How do you even go about quantifying and proving such a thing? And yet this would be a critical consideration in applying a solution to the issue of prevailing prejudice.

Should we, instead, focus our efforts on educating and currying favor with adults burdened by existing prejudice? Say that, hypothetically, Namibia had great success diminishing prejudice in this manner. But, once again, how do we know American adults will react the same way to education? Moreover, perhaps the issue is not education but the type of education or how the education is implemented. There are many different strategies, therein. Or do we forget education altogether, get tyrannical, and simply lock up anyone with racial and gender prejudice?

Each possible solution carries with it different resource constraints, outcomes, and indirect effects. And every society houses a different set of institutions, circumstances, social interactions, and economic imbalances, all with a unique set of strengths and weaknesses that will impact how successful a given solution is at addressing the problem of prejudice. One solution might succeed in one society and fail miserably in another.

Such as it is, with an issue of systemic failure, cookie-cutter solutions may fall short by missing the unique weakness of that system. Cookie-cutter solutions for systems are often far too generalized, and therefore only have a small chance every time they are applied of actually addressing the underlying weakness of a given system. We must address these underlying weaknesses, or “binding constraints,” if we are to truly improve the performance of a system by a given standard.

WHAT ARE BINDING CONSTRAINTS?

Binding constraints are those elements of an entity (person, organization, or system) that are the greatest limiting factors to growth and development of that entity. Dani Rodrik, a Harvard Kennedy School professor, elaborated the concept of binding constraints in his 2010 paper, “Diagnostics before Prescription.” Rodrik explained how one must identify the unique binding constraints limiting economic growth in a given developing country and then prescribe tailored solutions. This method stands in opposition to prescribing generalized solutions to problems before thoroughly assessing the specific roots of the issue — hence, diagnostics before prescription.

According to Rodrik, issues in prescription “arise when applied economists and policy advisors mistake models and arguments that are valid only in specific circumstances for universal remedies.”

There is a synergy among any set of factors that contribute to the growth of an entity — factors are not additive, but rather multiplicative or even exponential. Essentially, one or a handful of binding constraints can limit the sustained growth or improvement of an entire system.

For instance, if we assume there are ten important factors that contribute to the economic growth of a country, having nine out of ten does not result in 90% of that country’s full growth potential (additive factors). Rather, lacking even just one of those growth factors (that country’s binding constraint) could, for example, result in only 10% of that country’s growth potential (multiplicative or exponential factors).

REPETITION AND CONSCIOUS ANALYSIS

Binding constraints exist all around us in many forms and contexts. The fixes to many personal and societal problems, in large part, lie in our ability to identify these constraints and to address them so they are no longer “constraints.”

Thoroughly diagnosing before prescribing is difficult and time-consuming, but it is worth every minute. A theme emerges through this process: change occurs through repetition and a conscious analytical commitment to the problem at hand. You need both. Without a conscious analytical commitment to change, repetition will be haphazard and potentially meaningless. You need direction, and you always need to reassess what’s working and what isn’t. Yet without repetition, conscious analysis is also meaningless. You can only change so much by just thinking. Too many people think themselves into a hole. You have to actually practice being different.

Practice is necessary for true change, which requires repetition and renewed effort. At an institutional level, idealistic policies are often written without the explicit daily structure for how to actually implement those policies. While leaders pat each other on the back and deal out bonuses for words on paper, the people the policies are meant to affect are left wondering how lasting change will be achieved on the ground.

APPLYING THIS FRAMEWORK TO SPORTS: AN EXAMPLE

I have used my personal experience with sports in college to illuminate this concept simply because I have lived it intimately and have many personal data points.

The Binding Constraint

I was a starter for my college varsity soccer team. I was a good player in college. But I was not spectacular. And my team, though very successful, was also not as spectacular as it could’ve been. However, I believe we could have been had we understood the concept of binding constraints and how to address them.

I was a striker. As a striker, my job was to score goals. By my junior and senior years, I was taking many shots — by far the most on the team and among the most in the league — but my goals-scored-per-shot percentage was very poor. Essentially, relative to the high number of shots I was taking, I was scoring very few goals. My team, in no small part influenced by the underperformance of a starting striker, wasn’t as successful as it could have been.

Why was I struggling?

Rodrik would have us run the diagnostics, and identify my binding constraints to develop a tailored prescription.

There are a number of attributes that contribute to the success of a goal-scorer. I have divided the most significant ones into four categories: 1) Athleticism: speed, quickness, and endurance; 2) Collaboration: field vision (awareness of the positioning of players moment by moment) and passing; 3) Ball Skills: ball control and first touch; and 4) Shooting: shot quickness (how long it takes to shoot after taking a first touch), shot power, and shot placement. And all of this is notably more difficult under pressure from defensive players.

Anecdotally, I can quite easily tell you my strengths and weaknesses. My greatest strengths were speed, quickness, shot quickness, and shot power. I had above average endurance and passing ability, and average field vision. My first touch, my shot placement, and my ball control, however, were all below average — and, specifically under pressure, they were even worse. My “binding constraints”, then, were simply my weaknesses as a player.

This perfectly aligns with my personal scoring statistics, too: high volume of shots but low goals-scored-per-shot percentage. You can tell the story of my statistics through my strengths and weaknesses. Matching my greatest strengths with my above-average aptitudes, I was very often able to get myself into great positions to score. But, when it came to actually putting the ball in the back of the net, my below average first touch, ball control, and shot placement limited my ability to scoot the ball past the keeper in high-pressure situations (which was, unfortunately for me, almost always).

This case is a perfect example of the multiplicative nature of binding constraints because, since the success of a striker is in large part determined by how much they score, it is very clear that having average or above average aptitudes in most skills did not produce an average number of goals scored. In fact, my senior year, I had a terrible goals-scored-average. Having a high level of proficiency in 7 of the 10 attributes listed above that contribute to goal-scoring success did not result in 70% of my potential. Rather, lacking proficiency in just 3 of those 10 resulted, in a multiplicative manner, in more like 10 or 20% of my goal-scoring potential.

The Prescription

Addressing binding constraints is, indeed, a data- and management-rich activity. A coach would have to be able to identify the binding constraints of every player on the team as well as the team’s binding constraints as whole, and then implement player- and group-specific exercises consistently to strengthen those constraints, both individually and collectively.

However, the returns on this process are very high, so it should truly become a priority. Moreover, it could be carried out through a collaborative effort involving the players. Often the best management strategy is actually to purposefully delegate responsibility to those you are managing, to decentralize responsibility, in order to crowd-source ideas and tap into localized expertise — that expertise being, in this case, the players’ own knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses.

Similar to a political-economic system, there must be a healthy balance between centralization and decentralization. Many systems often lean too far towards centralization of control because managing the results of decentralization is perceived to be difficult and risky. Not to mention, those in power often think they know what’s best when they may, in important cases, not. I believe the clearest measure of great leadership is someone’s ability to recognize, manage, and build upon the strengths of the amazing support team and community surrounding them — a leader doesn’t have to do everything themselves. Addressing binding constraints is surely difficult, but the rewards of this method are amazing if managed and planned well.

It was easy for me to list my strengths and constraints above. Most players would be able to do that with a little purposeful reflection. Though statistics certainly reinforce intuition and anecdotal evidence, it doesn’t always take statistics to recognize the things you’re good and bad at. A coach could ferret out constraints and facilitate improvement by simply consulting each player about their personal strengths and weaknesses.

I believe that I, and every other player on the team, needed to be granted a significant portion of time each practice to focus specifically on our binding constraints. Unfortunately, on a D3 college soccer team, where academics are the priority and your coach is only allowed to train with you one season a year, you only have so much time every day to improve as a group, so this type of personal skill building is not often scheduled in. There are so many general skillsets to strengthen and collaborative exercises to run that personal skill building is often pushed aside during practice and left for players to pursue in their free time. Unfortunately, free time outside of all commitments is a rare luxury for a college student. I simply didn’t have time to improve my skills outside of scheduled practice during our fall season.

Real improvement could also have come from me spending dedicated time perfecting these skills outside of our fall season. I often took some time off in the winter, and was busy with other activities in the spring semester, but I had all summer to focus on these skills. And I did, a bit, but not nearly enough, because I wasn’t thinking about my performance within this framework.

So my binding constraints remained binding constraints all four years, despite steady improvement every year. But I didn’t need steady — I needed a jumpstart.

Again, this solution might seem obvious, but it isn’t put into practice nearly as often as you might think. As athletes, we are often encouraged to “improve our skills,” broadly. Perhaps that’s what young athletes need, a well-rounded skillset, but this is only helpful up to a certain point. In order to play sports in college, you generally need a certain level of proficiency in most skills. That much is taken for granted as a baseline. But it is your specific weaknesses, at this level, that are the most critical to address. Much as in the policy arena, where this limited time and money, a non-professional athlete has only so much time and energy, regardless of whether that is in-season or out of season. In college, I didn’t need to be spending my limited time improving all of my skills — I already had the necessary level of proficiency for all the requisite skills. Rather, I needed to be improving upon my binding constraints the majority of the time.

You don’t get good at something by practicing sometimes. You get good at something by practicing over and over. We often have binding constraints in sports to begin with because we didn’t work on a specific skill enough when we were younger. Without guidance, many young athletes gravitate towards their natural strengths and let the others slip. This was certainly true for me when I was younger.

It’s all about repetition. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell defines the 10,000-Hour Rule as a threshold of repetition beyond which someone actually becomes an expert at something. Most pre-college and college athletes, who are not hoping to become professional athletes, do not have ten thousand hours, not in the least a D3 college athlete. But they have hundreds of hours, even thousands over the course of a dozen years. And in order to achieve excellence, they need to utilize these limited hours in the most efficient way.

In college, I wasn’t scoring enough goals, and goals win games. Shot placement, ball control, and first touch were my binding constraints, and they were holding me back. That’s what binding constraints do: they hold you back. How much use is the highest shot taker on the team if only a few of his shots go in the goal? I didn’t need to spend a full two hours every practice on passing, offensive and defensive shape, ball movement, etc. Though certainly not an expert, I was already plenty good at those skills and concepts. And during the summer I didn’t need to focus as much on fitness, because that was already a strength of mine. I needed to become an expert in first touch and shot placement, to get as close to 10,000 hours as possible running ball control and shooting drills. Even with a static level of proficiency in all other skills, if I had seen improvement to the level of expertise in just my first touch and shot placement, I would have been telling a markedly different story of my success in college soccer.

Multiply that effect across the binding constraints of every player on the team, and you have a team that is severely underperforming, a team that will never be spectacular.

BINDING CONSTRAINTS ARE EVERYWHERE

There is no arena in life in which the concept of binding constraints does not apply. It stretches far beyond sports, into education, policy, personal growth, economics, social progress — all aspects of our lives. Nothing escapes its grip.

Ask yourself what your binding constraints are, in your personal and professional life, whether your ambitions are local or global, lofty or practical. Ask yourself — and then get after it!

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