Constraint mapping

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Constraint mapping appears in the Field guide to managing complexity (and chaos) in times of crisis and aims to attune decision makers to path-dependent features of the underlying territory (including deployable resources) which might otherwise be overlooked. This explicitly addresses Inattentional blindness arising from preoccupation with self-evident affordances (considered as solicitations to action) and involves a pause on the part of any decision maker lurching towards doing "the next right thing." They are something we can know and also something we can manage therefore they give us a low energy way of exploring hypotheses.

The output of constraint mapping could take almost any form, but in any and all cases, it should be held lightly, as showing "where to look, not what to see" (as indicating where a decision maker might wish to focus attention rather than as specifying exactly what the decision maker should pick up if looking in that direction).


Cynefin® has long used the constraint-based definition of complexity, with the domains having rigid, governing, enabling, no effective and unknown constraints as distinguishing factors.  The base definition of Cynefin® uses Alicia Juarrero's distinction.

It is a common mis-conception that constraints can only have negative implications, preventing things from happening or restricting what is possible. This is not the case and Cynefin® will provide for many, an entirely new way to look at constraints, which affords users a powerful lens or perspective through which to make sense of a context or system. Enabling constraints, are the best example of this, these constraints afford humans or other agents of change in a context or system the ability to do something. Put another way, they give permission to do, as opposed to preventing or restricting what is possible.

Constraint mapping and the associated typology of constraints is a central method within Cynefin® and helps navigate complexity by increasing understanding of the things available in a context or system which can be managed.

There are two reasons for mapping constraints:

  1. Constraints are things we can manage in a complex system, they are also things which increase awareness of how we can know how to act. Once you map constraints, distribution and delegation of decision making and action is easier and safer. With a focus on modifying constraints and monitoring for what happens there is an accompanying activity of planning for how to contain unhelpful consequences.
  2. Mapping and managing constraints helps avoid a direct connection between a situational assessment and a decision about an action to take. Humans make decisions on actions to take based on a first-fit pattern match with recent experience, followed by post hoc use of situational assessment to justify the decision already made. S/he who describes the problem generally controls the solution. A starting point of mapping and then managing constraints, combined with speculating as to the likely emergence that could result, creates a more objective decision making process. Mapping includes a process which helps ensure a set, or portfolio, of changes made are safe-to-fail and enables beneficial changes to be quickly encouraged, or amplified, whilst unbeneficial changes are quickly discouraged, or dampened.

This is not the same thing as the use in Goldratt's Theory of Constraints. This post is one view on the differences written by Steve Holt

A typology of constraints

Containers Connections Exert a force
Robust (survive unchanged until they break and if they break then it is generally catastrophic) Resilient (survive by change, continuity of identity over time) Change can trigger a phase shift (anti-fragile would be a part of this)
Generally ordered Generally complex TBD
Clear decisions Natural conditions Decisions that allow for emergence

Dark constraints exert a force that we can detect but we cannot trace it back.

These may become a set of three triads which will also allow mapping in SenseMaker®.

In more detail:

Robust constraints

  • Can be either Rigid or Governing (degrees of flexibility or discretion)
  • Survive by becoming stronger and more entrenched
  • They are context-free, which means they apply to everything, regardless of context
  • When they fail, do so catastrophically

Resilient constraints

  • Also referred to as enabling - designed to encourage agency
  • Survive by adapting and changing, continuity of identity over time
  • Are contextual - can be adapted for context; guidelines or heuristics rather than rules
  • When they break, there is usually some warning or the impact is small

Robust constraints can be …

  1. Rigid or fixed which means they are clearly defined, visible and can be enforced. If you want a metaphor think of a sea wall, or dykes. They have all the advantages of certainty, all the disadvantages of sudden catastrophic failure when their limits are reached.
  2. Elastic and thus have the benefit of adapting to a degree of change which is good, but they can still break and possibly give a false level of confidence. An elastic waistband may give you the illusion of maintaining a healthy weight but only for a time. The failure is more extreme.
  3. Tethers which provide a backstop, like a tow rope for example which has the slack taken up before it applies. These can be fail safes, backups only coming into play in extremis. The danger is damage when they snap into effect, both for the object being tethered and for the tether itself.

Resilient constraints can be …

  1. Permeable (for containers) or conditional (for coupling), in both cases the constraint is contingent. Some things can get through others can’t. Think of a salt marsh to contrast with the sea wall if you want an example. Or a system where rules can be broken in specific cases subject to heuristic control.
  2. Mutating which means they change over time, they don’t switch on and off, you can see the evolutionary pattern. Case based legal systems on contrast with those based on the Napoleonic code would be a good example of these. In companies, they are hardly ever used, but could be valuable.
  3. Dark are like dark matter or dark energy, we can see their impact but we don’t know what they are. Aspects of organisational culture fall into this category as do taboos, rituals, and the like. Far more prevalent in modern organisations than people realise they are almost a complex system in their own right, only knowable or changeable by interaction.

Constraint Mapping Approach

Constraint mapping is an assemblage, that is it combines a number of other methods and therefore there is no one fixed approach but a series of them. The following is only intended to be a use case to help provide an example, for now, that will be elaborated and extended to overtime

Future backward/Four points assemblage

  • Explore the space - make use of Future backwards
  • Establish the context - make use of Four points
  • Access the constraints - review the groups/cluster and discuss which constraints are at play
  • Establish actions - use the portfolio forms to outline a series of actions

(others to be added ...)


Participants should work in small groups with a clear focal issue…


General instructions to be given at the start

first instruction first set of tips

Mapping reveals what we can manage – constraint mapping typically leads to experimentation and development of safe-to-fail probes.

Do's and Don'ts

Simple bulleted list including common mistakes

Virtual running

Constraint mapping has been facilitated virtually using a digital collaboration canvas and virtual communication channels.


Link to other articles on this wiki if they are relevant.


Blog posts


Link to case articles here or third party material

Other resources