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Tight and Loose Constraints

When I was a kid, one of the many ways we split up in fractions and thoroughly looked down on each other was the preferred line of toys: Lego against Playmobil. I was a Lego boy. Whenever I got a new set, I built it once according to the instructions, and then it usually lasted for about a week or two until it was disassembled and integrated into whatever I was building at the time. I had enormous spaceships where the living quarters for the crew were in bright yellow, in contrast to the grey and blue predominant in the space sets, because I had many yellow bricks from the medieval castle at my disposal, and living quarters were more about walls and windows, and less about wings and wheels. The castle’s lances and flagposts became guns and antennas, and off I went to Mars.

I never kept the instructions for the original sets. 

By comparison, the object of desire for my Playmobil friends was the pirate’s ship. With its sails and shrouds, anchor winch and a little crane to lift cargo, it was a miniature much closer to the real thing than any Lego object could ever get, because of the Lego bricks’ 90° angles and nobs protruding everywhere. But the ship couldn’t be used for anything other than pirates. 

What do these toys have to do with complexity? The toys are not complex, but play is. In the complexity of play, the choice of toys makes certain things possible, and others not. With Lego there are no limits to what we build, but we will never reach the miniature precision of Playmobil, and the multitude of diverse objects, like seven different brushes for a horse. In terms of complexity, the toy constrains the play. The precision of Playmobil invites the player to immerse in the details of what they see and go through the actions accordingly. The constraints of what the situation represents are rather tight. We can use the horse brush to scrub the deck of the pirate’s ship, but we cannot reconfigure it to be anything but a brush. By comparison, Lego invites to build a context with much looser constraints, while at the same time we need our imagination to fill in the details that the bricks don’t represent. Our mental vision needs to hone off the knobs and angles of the bricks. The two systems constrain in inverse directions. For someone who doesn’t know what to play, the strong and narrow invitation of Playmobil is a better start. Someone who has decided what to play, may prefer Lego’s openness to build the world according to their design. The incompatibility of these two constraints can be seen if we compare today’s Lego sets to those a few generations ago. A study for the period of 1955-2015 shows an exponential increase in the number of brick types used per set (more variety), and an exponential growth in the number of new bricks introduced each year (faster innovation rate). At the same time, the number of sets for which a brick was used over the next few years, decreased exponentially (more specialisation). The tentative conclusion of the study coincides with my own experience, as a boy-become-father: the more specialised bricks there are, and the more ‘perfect’ the assembled sets look, the more difficult it gets to build something to our own design, and as a consequence, fewer children become explorative master builders. Lego is drawing closer to Playmobil.

We can see Lego as an invitation to take the pieces apart and reconstruct them in a novel way. A design of children’s choice architecture. A desire to influence emerging behaviour. Constraints define what is possible, and what is not possible in a system. Think of them as the limitations to the field of play – as Yves Morieux put it, defining the frame in which people can act. Predominantly, constraints can be tight, or they can be loose. They can be limiting or enabling. 

In many complex contexts, the right degree of constraints is in balance between too loose and too tight. If, in a game of football, you replace the ball with a heavier basketball, you tighten the constraints. The game slows down, it tires the players out quicker, passes don’t get that far, and some may complain of pain and bruises just from kicking the ball. If in a game of volleyball, you remove the central net, you loosen constraints. But it becomes so easy to score a point that no-one will want to play for long. The size of goals, the height of nets and loops, or rules such as the no-smashing zone in pickleball, are all designed to keep the flow of the game in that goldilocks zone between tight and loose constraints. 

And this is an idea we can take out of the world of play, and into the world of management. Let’s think of ourselves as architects of the game of collaboration and business, as designers of the game’s constraints, and set the playing field to enable the appropriate flow.

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