Enabling Constraints and Micro-Conflicts

Luke Hohmann’s innovation games include two classic enabling constraints, 20/20 Vision and Buy-A-Feature. Examining these and other constraints reveals that an important part of enabling constraints may be micro-conflicts.


20/20 Vision

20/20 vision is a simple and effective innovation game for prioritising a list of items. A number of people come together either physically or on-line using Luke’s Hohmann’s Weave product. The group start with a list of items and randomly pick one. They then randomly pick another and compare its priority to the first item. It can be higher or lower but never the same priority. The third item is then compared to first two. For each, the group decide if the new item is a higher or lower priority. This process is completed for as much of the list as the group wants to prioritise.

The simple rules of the game create a constraint.

  • The list must be strictly ordered.
  • Compare one item at a time.

The constraint ensures conflict between the stakeholders. They have to engage with each other and discuss the relative priority of each pair of items. It is not possible for an individual to order the list without engaging with the other stakeholders.

In order to win each contest when comparing two items, the stakeholders need to articulate the value of the item and why they need it. By doing this they reveal their intent.

Buy a Feature

Buy a feature is another of Luke’s Innovation Games. The game is played by a small group in person or online. A list of features is provided, each with its estimated cost. Each player is given an equal amount of money. The total money available will only cover a portion of the features. Many of the features require the money from more than one player. The players have to build their ideal backlog, convincing the other players to invest in the features they value the most.

As with 20/20 Vision, the constraints of the game ensures conflict between the players, and requires them to reveal their intent in order to convince the other players.

Conflict and Collaboration

When groups come together they are in the forming stage. They are careful to ensure that their concerns do not overlap with others until they know them better. They try not to step on each other’s toes as they do not want to be judged harshly by the rest of the group.


As individuals gain confidence, they grow their area of concern. As a result, the concerns of one or more individuals overlap. This leads to conflict. Through the conflict, they learn how to resolve issues between them.

A number of things can happen:

  • The group grow to become a team who collaborate with each other
  • The group gets stuck in conflict
  • The group avoids all conflict

Groups that become teams engage in conflict when their concerns overlap.


They will argue over small things at first and then bigger things. When they become a team, they do not necessarily expect everyone to adopt the same values and beliefs. In fact, they grow to value and respect the values and beliefs of the other people in the team. In other words they validate the identity of the other team members in the team. They value the differences to themselves and the diversity of the team.

A healthy team engages in many micro-conflicts as they give and take on the road to becoming a team. For example, they might win the battle to adopt “Given When Then” but give up on the adoption of “Mock Objects”. “Giving in” is an important part of the team building process. It is the “giving in” that forms their new identity as part of the team. It is the price they pay for their new identity.

A healthy team engages in conflict all the while. The conflict focuses on the ideas and things with an understanding that good things will come from the discussion. A healthy team does not challenge the identity of the people in the team. Compare “Boris is a pain in the neck, he challenges everything we suggest which makes every discussion harder, and we are slower for it.” and “Sarah is brilliant, she challenges everything we suggest which makes every discussion harder, and we are get awesome outcomes as a result.”

Most people dislike conflict, especially over the long term. If the group cannot resolve their differences, they are more likely to avoid conflict by avoiding each other. If the group does engage in direct conflict for a prolonged period, the whole group will fail. Failing groups tend to draw more people in which makes failure more visible to the wider organisation. A public failure of the entire group is normally enough to a catalyst to tip them into norming. ( As an aside, I have found Dan Mezick’s triad concept to be an effective structure to help groups at this point ). The norming phase is early collaboration where people often over share for fear of causing another group failure, or they gradually share increasing amounts of information. In both cases, they get to a point where trust is established and they understand what other people want to be informed about.

If the group avoids conflict, the boundaries are carefully negotiated to prevent conflict. I call this the cold war.

Avoiding Conflict

Skirmishes occur at the borders but sharing and communication are contractually agreed. These contracts often involves one or both parties telling the other the things they can and cannot do. Consider the relationship between Business Analysts and Developers, and Developers and IT Operations. Service Level Agreements are a clear indicator of a cold war relationship between two groups. When these conflicts fail, they can be quite unpleasant. These conflicts are like the Cuban Missile Crisis or Vietnam where the two main powers (e.g. Executives) do not engage directly but rather engage in a proxy war. For the people directly involved, the impact can be devastating.

Avoid conflict guarantees that the group will never evolve into a team, avoiding conflict perpetuates conflict and prevents collaboration from emerging.

The Strategy of Conflict

The strategy of conflict is a game theory strategy developed for the United States to defeat the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It is a very effective strategy for “winning” when you are in conflict with others.

It has several strategies for winning:

  1. Hide your intent.
  2. Withhold information.
  3. Do not communicate with your opposition.
  4. Do not allow competitors to have access to your decision maker.

Both 20/20 vision and Buy a feature constrain members of the group to do the opposite to one, two and three. Both require people to share their intent, why they want an item, and how it will help them. To improve the chances of an item “winning”, both require people to share all the information they have. Both force communication.

I am aware of examples where the decision makers come together and form the enabling constraint. Perceiving that the situation is in control, they send a proxy on their behalf. Where the proxy is not fully authorised to speak on behalf of the decision maker, and the decision maker is not bound by the commitments made by the proxy, the enabling constraint falls apart. If a stakeholder is unable to partipate in an enabling constraint, they must empower their proxy and commit the decisions made.

Enabling constraints need to be constructed in such a way as to prevent members from avoiding conflict, and create a dispositionality towards collaboration.


My hypothesis is that the micro-conflicts evident in 20/20 Vision and Buy a Feature are an important but often overlooked part of the process of forming an enabling constraint.

An enabling constraint creates micro-conflicts that dispose people to “give up” and invest in the team. This investment means they value the team, and they value the identity they acquire by becoming a member.

Budget Games

Since 2010, Luke Hohmann has been helping the Mayor of San Jose engage with the population about its budget. Budget Games, a large scale implementation of buy a feature, has been run every year since.

Whilst the purpose of the exercise was to order the backlog (prioritise the budget), one of the impacts has been that Budget Games has also built and strengthened the community in San Jose.

The community has been formed as much by years of micro-conflicts where some people give, and some people receive.

About theitriskmanager

Currently an “engineering performance coach” because “transformation” and “Agile” are now toxic. In the past, “Transformation lead”, “Agile Coach”, “Programme Manager”, “Project Manager”, “Business Analyst”, and “Developer”. Did some stuff with the Agile Community. Put the “Given” into “Given-When-Then”. Discovered “Real Options” View all posts by theitriskmanager

2 responses to “Enabling Constraints and Micro-Conflicts

  • Martien van Steenbergen

    Excellent article. Thanks for writing it up.

    As we say overhere: zonder wrijving geen glans: without friction no shine.

    Resonates with Agile Contracts and Pattern Languages TMO. Agile Contracts invite win-win within a force (or friction) field. Patterns are structure preserving and wholeness improving transitions in a specific context which also enjoys a force or friction field.

  • Five Blogs – 4 January 2019 – 5blogs

    […] Enabling Constraints and Micro-Conflicts Written by: Chris Matts […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: