Are Boundaries Limiters Or Accelerators? This Is How I Learned


Early in my career I had the opportunity to be part of the leadership team for a business start up within Intel. It was an exciting time before the dot com bust. New tech businesses were growing like weeds. I remember we focused on being fast and nimble. This meant we considered process to be bureaucracy. It slowed us down and we were different. We didn’t need process.

Burn out

A couple of years later, we were exhausted. Trying to run faster and faster wore us down. We couldn’t keep up the pace and the business was eventually shut down. I moved out that business into a completely new role in IT. I needed something new because I felt so burned out.

Looking back on this, I learned a very important lesson that some of my clients are facing today. When are processes, rules and boundaries limiters and when are they accelerators? I started to change my opinion when I heard this analogy. Imagine you are driving a car on a winding cliff top road and there are no guardrails. I would be anxious and driving more cautiously, going slower. If there were guardrails, I still wouldn’t be driving like a bat out of hell, but I would be less worried and going a little faster.

Boundaries can be liberating

The same is true in business. When we have clear boundaries, we know what is and is not ok. I remember a conversation with the leader of my group. She encouraged innovation within a certain scope. In fact, she encouraged us to innovate as much as possible. This was very liberating. I knew where line was and I was free to do what liked within the boundaries.

As a leader, we have the responsibility to define clear boundaries for our team. We also need to explain why they are there. By doing this we remove ambiguity, making it easier for them to go fast. And not having to worry if there is a cliff ahead. At the same time, it is important we don’t turn the boundary into a sheep pen. A tight enclosure with no room to move. For example, to innovate or use our initiative. Animal pens keep the inhabitants constrained and in one spot. They are designed to control, the same as when we micro-manage our team.

What sort of boundaries are you setting for your team? Are they acting as guardrails to help your team stay on the path or are they acting as a constraint? Unlike guardrails on a road, we have the ability to move the boundaries we set for our teams. Doing this requires us to listen to our team and observe how our boundaries are working. Are you providing the right balance of clarity and control?