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Innovating In a Time of Constraint

November 7, 2023 4 min read

It’s one of the realities of life, business, and technology development: Macro conditions are always shifting. And just now, they seem to be shifting in the direction of a slowdown or even possible recession. Those who want to look for signs of a downturn in tech can certainly find them, notably in the splashy recent layoffs.

Whether or not our industry tips over into a full downturn, the alarm bells alone are enough to signal caution for anyone leading a development team. This likely means lower budgets, a slowdown or block on new hiring, or worst of all, having to shed staff.

No one likes to have to operate with fewer resources, particularly when it comes to people. But if you work long enough in any space, this will happen, and you have to be able to deal with it

If you understand the challenge of leading development in a lower growth moment, you may find that you can not only survive… but thrive.

A new context requires a new approach

To understand what is different about leading a development team in leaner times, it’s helpful to start with the dominant economic reality in tech over the last decade: Hypergrowth. For many companies, from startups to bigger enterprises, the challenge was clear: Grow as fast as possible. And this meant investing heavily, and at times recklessly, in their development efforts.

What was encouraged and rewarded? Leaders were being pushed to “think bigger” and try for expensive, sometimes poorly defined, objectives associated with large potential payoffs. They were rewarded for ambitious thinking, moving quickly, trying multiple ways to solve a problem in the hope that one might pan out.  The philosophy was: “Just push hard and go fast, and trust that the people and resources will be there for you.”

This type of “moonshot” mindset can be effective, and certainly panned out for many companies over the last few years. For many more, however, it fell short. They burned through their funding, exhausted their budgets, and eventually saw their projects canceled.

In boom times like that, development team managers learn certain habits. They can prioritize speed over efficiency, ambition over pragmatism, and growth over quality. Due to the constant need to onboard new people, they can drift out of touch with the challenges of training and equipping their existing teammates.

Effective teams can innovate with less

So now that it seems we are heading into a lower growth or contracting period, what are the lessons and practices that team leaders should think about?

Understand that fewer resources does not mean less impact or less innovation. It does mean that you can have to prioritize focus and efficiency, however. Focus always matters – but in times of constraint it becomes vital.  Don’t think of it in terms of that tired old trope, “Do more with less.” Think of it as: “Do more of what matters most.” Which projects will you pursue? And within those projects, which features of elements will you emphasize or limit yourself to?

And as you wrestle with how to get more out of a smaller team, understanding that team becomes critical! You can’t consider everyone as loosely interchangeable; you have to understand their unique strengths and put them in a position to succeed and to grow.

Finally, the process and practices side of the job becomes more important. How can we squeeze a bit more time or cost out of a project by using our tools well? Where can we alter our process?

Constraint can actually spur new thinking and creativity

Sometimes, when confronted by a sharp decrease in a resource, you can actually unlock totally new thinking and creativity on your team. Why? Because the old approaches become unavailable, meaning that they have an urgent incentive to explore completely new directions and ideas.

This is the paradox of constraint; if approached with an open, creative mindset, it can lead to breakthrough thinking. Startups are a great example! If you don’t think constraints can be a useful context, how would startups ever take down mega-incumbents? They have to engage with problems in fresh ways. If they play the same game with vastly fewer resources, they will never win. So they have to play a new game.

You don’t have to be a startup to think this way. And you certainly don’t need to have your budget lowered to tap the power of constraint. You do need to shift your mindset, however, and pass on new priorities to your team. And this is where the role of the leader is so important.

The best leaders are those who maintain a similar philosophy in lean or flush times. I don’t want my team to think: “Oh, we have budget so we should just spend it.” I want them to understand that money is never free… there are always other places that resources could go! And as we’ve discussed, too much spending can sometimes make us less creative, not more. We shouldn’t let our budget dictate our investments. Instead, we should make those decisions based on expected value and ROI. The bar should be: “If we invest here, what will we get back? Is it worth it?”

Know which constraints to accept – and which to challenge

As you become more experienced with working through and with constraints, another challenge emerges. Which do you accept? And which do you challenge?

Because while some limitations are absolute, most are not. It’s like looking at the walls of a house: They all look solid, but only a few are structurally essential; most are simply drywall that you can bust through. Budgets are a great example of this. You might have “sacred” items, things that are always funded no matter what. But if you start asking, “Why?”, you can often realize that there are other ways to unlock the same value.

Good leaders follow the rules. Great ones learn when and how to bend them. The real art is using the unique power of constraints to spur innovation without becoming rigid and limited. All development, like all other creative work, exists in a delicate balance constraint and openness.

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Jason Li is Ironclad’s VP of Engineering. Before joining Ironclad, he was the VP of Engineering at SalesforceIQ and Grovo. He holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from U.C. Berkeley and an M.S. in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University.