We all have limitations. We may not know what they are. Or, we may not want to admit them. We may imagine them as more impermeable than pushing up against would reveal. Nonetheless, they are there.
Knowing–and challenging–your limitations, as well as working with them, are key factors in achieving really significant change.
Knowing Your Limitations
Whether the change is personal or organizational, it is important to inventory your limitations at an early stage of defining and planning it. Perhaps they are resource-based: time, money, the balance of personal and work lives. They may be limitations of skills and abilities, or understanding. There may be geographic restrictions, or legal.
As the desired end state of your journey begins to take shape, think: What will it take to achieve, and sustain this? Not surprisingly, the limitations inventory should be made on those things; if you don’t need a particular thing at all, not having it, having it in short supply (or, as will be discussed below, having an overabundance) isn’t a limitation. At the early stages, you will be working at a high level; this is not when you need to think about “dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.” it is important to remember, though, that you are working at a high level on both sides of the equation: both the requirements for and the availability of the elements you are evaluating. If there is an imbalance, proceed to the next step.
Challenging Your Limitations
Too often when it comes to change, we make one of two major mistakes at the outset: we set out to achieve the impossible, thinking that somehow “it will work out.” Or, we aim too low, “settling” for what we think is possible without any sort of stress-testing to see if we can go further. (If you set your goal as X because reaching and sustaining X will deliver the change results you are seeking, that is not what I am talking about here. However, you should stress-test if you believe that X is the goal you need to achieve, and then find yourself saying, “but let’s only go to M because I know we can reach and sustain that.”) Stress-testing your limitations may also allow you to discover that the goal that you have set could–in fact–be raised significantly.
So how do you go about stress-testing your limitations? Begin by challenging the underlying beliefs and assumptions. (Yes, that is hard to do!) How strongly is the limitation anchored in fact vs. perspective?
Let’s look at a simple example. Imagine that you are a freelance trainer. You contract with training firms and internal training departments to deliver their programs. You want to expand your business in order to grow your income, but you are limited by your work-life balance, and by the amount of time you spend traveling to deliver training.
- Time available for work without significantly shifting the work-life balance
- Current billing rate is near the top of the competitive range in the marketplace
- Your time spent on traveling approaches 40% given the duration of the programs being delivered, the geography of clients served, and the distance you are from airports.
The time available based on your work-life balance is a self-defined limitation. While you know that it can be adjusted toward more work, that comes with a price too high for you to be willing to pay; stress-testing this limitation has happened before, and it has proven too uncomfortable to take on this time around.
Given your billing rate vs. the market, it is likely that any increase will lead to a decline, rather than an increase, in income. This is the opposite of the result that you want. You may want to have some conversations with current clients to test their response, but do so as a test, asking “what if,” vs. saying “I am.”
The last limitation requires a few different tests.
- If you delivered longer programs, there would be less time spent traveling between deliveries. Is there a way to shift your work away from those half-day and one-day programs to longer ones over time? This would increase the delivery/travel ratio and the income, at least to some extent nullifying the limitation.
- Can you expand your client base locally over time, reducing the need to travel to airports? Even if this required some reduction in your billing rate for the local market, it might more than offset the time you cannot now spend delivering due to travel.
- Don’t assume deliveries require travel. It may well be possible to avoid travel altogether for some of the programs (and perhaps even clients) you are serving. What if you became skilled in remote delivery? Moving 25% of your business to remote delivery would free up considerable time for additional deliveries.
There is something paradoxical about some limitations as well. We think about them as holding us back in some way, and they do. But, we also think that challenging them means moving beyond them. In fact, in some cases, we are best served going in the other direction. Bringing an “essentialism” mindset to your limitations may well prove to break many of them wide open. (If you have not read Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown, I recommend adding it to your reading list today.)
To me, Steve Jobs is perhaps one of the most widely known essentialists; he said “no” to an incredible number of ideas, many of which would have had success in the marketplace, in order to say “yes” to a small handful that have changed everything from how we buy and listen to music, to how we buy and read books, and more; in the process he built perhaps the most widely known brands (and one of the most successful) in the world. He addressed limitations of time and creative focus not by seeking more, but by limiting where they were focused. When you look at your limitations, what can you say “no” to that will redefine the degree to which they limit you? What limitations should you seek to further tighten, rather than loosen?
Quite frankly, most of us are not good at challenging our limitations on our own; we can’t see what we can’t see. The most effective challenges to your limitations will come through someone who 1) is committed to supporting your success, and 2) can remain objective about your change and what is required to succeed. At the organizational level this may be trusted colleagues; or it may mean bringing in an external consultant who is able to earn your trust. At the personal level the challenge may be from a coach, a mentor, or a trusted advisor. It has to be someone who can be brutally honest with you when necessary; who can empathize with your struggles and yet will not let you take the easy path out; and who will unconditionally 100% support you once you have made your decisions. This is neither someone who tells you what you want to hear, nor someone who undermines you when your decisions are different than they would have made.
Working With Your Limitations
If you have sincerely challenged your limitations, it is now time to work with them. Begin by updating your inventory against your identified needs. Should you redefine your desired outcome (e.g. moving it from X to Z because Z is now achievable, or moving it from X to R because you will get past M, but not make it to X)? What limitations have now become assets that you can apply to the change journey (e.g. the time that will be freed up as you move to delivering longer programs and delivering some programs remotely)? Which remain limitations?
Don’t look at your limitations as negatives; they are the reality in which you need to move forward. In fact, some of the greatest progress can be made in constrained environments. In the business world think of Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints which always focuses the highest priority improvement on the biggest constraint. At the personal level, think of your own cycle of growth and development from those earliest days out on your own until now. It is likely that early economic constraints kept you focused on work and growth, that while living in what you now (and perhaps then) perceive as a constrained environment you were able to make some our your most profound discoveries about yourself and your place in the world.
In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert tells some wonderful stories about working within constraints. While she sought to write every day, she also “always had a day job;” she had successfully published three books, all of which were reviewed by The New York Times, and one of which was nominated for a National Book Award. She kept writing, and kept her day jobs. She was a waitress; she worked on a ranch out west; and she kept writing. She kept her day jobs until the success of Eat, Pray, Love allowed her to know that she could support her creativity without placing financial demands on it. She knew that depending on her art for income would place an unnecessary–and most likely destructive–limitation on her creativity, and removed that limitation by working day jobs.
How do you challenge your limitations? Who–if anyone–helps you do so? What have you learned about yourself and your limitations in the process? What has working with your limitations taught you? Comment below.