Leaders Celebrate Constraints

When I was a band teacher, we experienced a staff cut. In 10 years, the department went from 7 teachers serving about 500 students to 5 teachers serving 600.

The superintended gave us that left-handed compliment that’s supposed to reassure us while also keeping us quiet:

“If anyone could do this, you can. We believe we have the right team in place to maintain your high level of quality under these circumstances.”

Our response?

“Can’t be done.”

Unless, of course, we hadn’t been working hard enough before. But we had; however, we weren’t working smarter.

Well, we were both a little right, and a little wrong. There were a lot of unintended consequences, but let’s just focus on one surprising positive outcome that I experienced.

I learned the basics of project management, and I learned how to prioritize and organize my tasks.

I went from teaching about 90 students in a high school band to teaching 130 students in that same band, plus an eighth-grade ensemble. Twice the ensembles to plan for, and a 35% increase in private lesson expectation. While maintaining quality.

“Can’t be done?”

All of us affected designed a 4-point rubric, listed every element of our programs, and together decided to eliminate just a couple of things; enough to narrow our focus, and demonstrate to leadership that we can’t do it all, but are committed to thoughtful cuts.

Something that I was forced to do was make more lists, plan ahead, and prioritize (using A,B,C) like never before. And amazingly, it worked.

By working smarter, and just as hard as ever, we got more done.

I did get overwhelmed by large projects, though, with contingent tasks. Frantic searching of the web led me to an article on project management basics, and I actually created Gantt charts for big events. Kind of fun, actually, and got to learn about a different world.

Today, I would be less organized, less efficient, and less habitually focused on the right priorities. A constraint changed my work habits.

I heard the great trainer, business leader, and speaker Rowena Crosbie of Tero International speak recently, and she expounded on this idea of “celebrating constraints”. She had her own story, and I immediately thought of this experience. She’s right.

Constraints, when approached optimistically, bring out our best.

The next time you get thrown a curve ball that puts you in a disadvantaged situation, find a way to celebrate it, take control, learn, and build yourself and others.

2 Responses

  1. Jonathan Shaver
    | Reply

    “…celebrate it…” a great reframing, Alan. Artists who choose to use limited colors, for example, or poets who are use rhyme or syllable count find great inspiration in constraints.

    • Alan Feirer
      | Reply

      Right on, Jonathon- the sonnet, and sonata-allegro form, resulted in great works of poetry and music.

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