BL&T No. 170: Project Constraints Team Practice in 3-2-1 Growth Practice

Ways of Working

This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Borrowed, Learned, & Thought. BL&T is sent weekly on Mondays. In every edition, I share lessons learned in agency leadership, life, and e-commerce. This post does not include all the details shared in the newsletter sent via email. Subscribe here.


"We fool ourselves in freedom if we think it means getting rid of the constraints around us."

From "Greenlights" by Matthew McConaughey [Book]


If you've been following my newsletter or blog, you're likely familiar with a monthly ritual I lead with the team called 3-2-1 Growth. Originally conceived as a way for our team to refresh on personal growth concepts, it's transformed into a collaborative exploration of relevant topics within the agency.

I position these sessions as more than just exercises; they're a collective effort to hone our skills while learning from one another. It's about preparing for real-life scenarios by practicing together. Some months, we dig into e-commerce, while others focus on common challenges we encounter, whether on projects or within the team.

Our most recent 3-2-1 Growth session centered on creating a project approach within defined constraints—timeline, budget, allocated hours, and requirements. The inspiration for these constraints stemmed from a recent prospective client discussion. For the session, I divided the team into groups and tasked each with creating a project approach that delivered the client's goals within the constraints.

My decision to focus on this topic came from a recent project debrief where I noticed a misalignment in the team's interpretation of what led to the project going over budget, including some feeling it was doomed from the start. After chatting with our Design Director, Christine, we felt that 3-2-1 Growth could serve as a platform for the team to practice crafting a project approach within a set of constraints and taking ownership of the outcome.

The team's engagement during these sessions consistently impresses me, and last week's gathering was no exception. Some groups even took it upon themselves to brand their project approach with a name. It was great to see much of the team aligned on aspects of the approach; however, it also spotlighted gaps where we, as an agency, need to direct our focus on filling moving forward.

Here are some of those takeaways:

  1. You only have so much in your wallet: I often liken project constraints to shopping with a finite amount of cash. I picture myself when I first moved to New York on a tight budget. You get creative about your meal plan because you only have so much to spend. It's no different on projects, yet it was interesting to see some team members starting the exercise by trying to jam in all of the steps of a project that would be four times the budget. Like creating recipes for the week that work within a budget, I think it will be worthwhile to get down on paper the various ways we can approach a client's goals within different constraints. This idea is not new, but one we haven't yet cracked.
  • But that's not enough money: Back to the grocery store. Whether or not you have enough money to buy the meals for the week that you'd like or not doesn't matter because you have to eat! So you figure it out. However, in the session, some team members were initially discouraged. Rather than embrace the constraints from the onset, they suggested the project wasn't possible. Luckily, they came around and saw other ways to get the same objective with less. There's no easy solution here, but continuing to practice this mindset with the team will be critical.
  • Remember the goal: While my group worked through their approach, some folks started with our internal processes rather than beginning with the constraints and working backward. This way of working is a sure way to add bloat to a project without delivering perceivable value to the client and losing sight of their goals. Perhaps revisiting our SOWs to include the purpose behind each project milestone could steer the team in the right direction when working through a project approach.
  • Everyone's experience is different: It was cool to see folks who had done projects with similar constraints in the past connect the dots and quickly formulate an approach. This observation underscores the importance of consciously diversifying the types of projects assigned to team members while better documenting and sharing knowledge. Another thought is using our project debrief takeaway discussions with the team as a means for highlighting the original project approach and constraints. Over time, this could be a powerful exercise for showcasing the diverse ways of getting the work done.

Overall, I'm encouraged by the outcomes of last week's exercise. We identified clear areas for improvement and uncovered some new ideas during our discussions.

As we look at different ways to fill these gaps, I know creating resources alone is not the answer. However, I often find the process of documenting and brainstorming provides clarity. Not to mention, involving the team in this effort has the potential to create a new sense of ownership. I look forward to continuing this exploration and seeing where we land in a few months.


For more on 3-2-1 Growth, check out:


What are some of the biggest challenges my team faces in their work? In what ways can I help them practice their skills and readiness to tackle these challenges more effectively?


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