Let’s say that you are a manager with the nagging feeling you are not getting the most out of your team.
You hired talented people, and yet, no matter how exhaustive and precise your work orders are, they keep delivering results that are unexciting, limp, mediocre?
Have you thought that maybe your highly detailed work orders are what’s to blame? That a bit of vagueness, that breathing room is what your talented people need to deliver bottled awesomeness?
In “change by design,” Tim Brown discuss that briefs handed down to designers. He argues that an exhausting list of granular requirements will more often than not result in a mediocre product that’s little more than a wrapping around the specifications. Instead, giving the design team as a set of goals and a few constraints as boundaries, then working with the team to refine them during the process, has in one example led to 350 concepts, more than 60 prototypes and 3 ideas brought to development.
In “Connected Company,” Dave Gray make a similar argument for using boundaries. His organizational model called Podularity use a platform, a boundary composed of constraints, support, and shared information, in which teams plug into. They have the freedom to tackle work and emerging situation as they see fit, as long as do so within the boundaries of the platform. This strategy allows the team to react faster and find more creative solutions since most of the decisional power reside in those closest to the situation.
In both cases, the idea is to give talented individuals the freedom to use their abilities in the best way possible, while making sure they don’t go too far off track.
Using such boundaries is an excellent way to foster intrinsic motivation within employees. In “Drive,” Daniel Pink explain that in most occupations, especially more creative ones, extrinsic motivation (i.e. carrots and sticks) end up being detrimental. Intrinsic motivation, based on a desire for mastery, autonomy, and purpose, creates engagement, a high level of satisfaction and creativity.
Creating the right kind of boundaries
The boundaries you create need to unlock creativity, not continue to hinder it using a different approach. While it is entirely possible to create boundaries so well defined that there’s little to no deviation from your expectation possible, such boundaries are not going to help you much.
The best boundaries allow breathing room. They should define the extent of your tolerance, a clear message not to go outside those bounds, but as long as the team stays inside, they are free to explore solutions.
Creating empowering boundaries is not very difficult. Start by asking yourself a few questions:
- In broad strokes, what do I want?
- In broad strokes, what I want to avoid?
- Why do I want or don’t want these things?
- What’s my budget?
- What’s my timeline?
- What data or reference material can I provide to the team?
- What data/reporting do I request from the team?
Answering those simple questions will open a discussion with the team. They will want some enlightenment, some guidance, some opinions on ideas. Keep in mind that you don’t need all the answers. “I don’t know. Show me something.” is an acceptable answer and a powerful one at that. Such an answer is a request for suggestions.
Boundaries must remain alive. They will change and evolve over the course of the project, through a back and forth between you and the team. Ideas get refined, constraints get refined. It is a necessity especially when there are several great concepts to choose from.
Keep them on track
Even teams used to boundaries can sometimes get lost in their explorations and creativity. But that possibility can be avoided by simple framing constraints.
Regularly requesting new prototypes or at least seeing the constant advances of a working and evolving solution will do the trick. Not only this will give a regular update on progress, but allow for discussing the solution(s) presented, progressively refining the boundaries.
Sometimes the team will struggle:
On more straightforward work, this situation will identify a flow problem. The use of a kanban board eases the identification of such flow issues early so you and the team can address them rapidly.
On creative endeavors, it can be trickier to identify struggling as progress is not necessarily linear. It can take a bit longer before realizing that the team is chasing its tail, or lost in too many possibilities. In the first case, identifying if any particular constraint is the problem will give you the information needed to provide additional support. In the second case, a team lost in the possibilities will benefit from an additional constraint or two to bring back focus.
Boundaries invigorates relationships
Working with boundaries rather than a full set of specifications will change your relation with your team. Depending on the nature of the work, it might mean for you to more involved or less involved than before, but the dynamic of the relationship will be different.
You will see genuine collaboration emerge with your team rather than a hierarchical rapport. You won’t simply be the person who assigns work, and then either micromanages the team or nearly ignore them. You will be a partner, who’s opinions and resources will be tapped by the team to provide you with what you need.
If this seems intimidating, maybe a workshop on modern leadership, like those from Management 3.0 (that we offer), would help. As work dynamics changes, leadership must evolve to address those changes better and make the most of these new relationships.