Organizational Fences Aren't Always Evil

September 16, 2011

As I pointed out in my previous post, fences stifle initiative; but that is not a universal rule. In business, fences are constraints, and some of these "organizational fences" are good constraints. Like those designed to prevent discrimination, sexual harassment, or injuries. These constraints need to be both visible and clear, and there shouldn't be room left for negotiation or interpretation.

Other types of constraints, however, need to provide people some maneuvering room. Operational constraints fall into this category. Operational constraints help to define and frame the problem at hand for people. They inform people about what the business needs from them in order to be successful – or to measure the degree in which a business succeeds.

Businesses have constraints because they don’t have unlimited budgets; most projects are deemed worth doing only if they can be accomplished within certain time frames and costs. As long as the constraints are realistic, they are actually a good thing because people need an achievable goal. They will disengage when they are presented with an impossible problem or deadline. The same problem can arise due to a complete lack of constraints.

Mike Cohn discussed this issue in his book, Succeeding with Agile.Mike cited research conducted by Kevin Coyne, Patricia Gorman Clifford, and Renee Dye in 2007 for the Harvard Business Review (Breakthrough thinking from inside the box), in which they reported, “Without some guidance, people cannot judge whether they should continue in the direction of their first notion or change course altogether. They cannot handle the uncertainty and shut down.”

The message here is simple, people need space to operate, but this should not translate into having “no boundaries.” To build an environment that fosters initiative-taking and innovative thinking, people need to be provided with a framework to work from.

This means that leaders should take the extra time and effort to engage people in conversations about the business and allow people to consider how they should approach their work to meet the needs of the business. The advantage in this is that everyone will have a greater understanding and appreciation of the key drivers of the business and how their efforts relate to the business. It’s the difference between building commitment versus enforcing compliance, of guiding versus controlling.

If you overly constrain people, people won’t feel like they are a part of the solution – where they feel their ideas and approach to the work are genuinely valued. The old saying, “If you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem” doesn’t always wash. The environment that people work in is a critical component.

That said, as a leader you will need to adjust your leadership style based on the needs of your employees. There is no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to management. People are in different places at different times in their careers, and even the act of making a change to a new position can create new challenges for an individual that requires a change in your leadership approach.

In his book Great Business Teams: Cracking the Code for Standout Performance, Howard Guttman recommends that your leadership behavior needs to involve analyzing two factors:

ENAGAGEMENT: An individual’s commitment to being a team player, his or her willingness to take ownership of and be held accountable for the team’s success; his or her intention to embrace the attributes of high-performing teams.

SKILLS: The knowledge and skills an individual brings to a goal or task; education, experience, and/or ability; the individual’s appropriate utilization of his or her technical leadership, interpersonal, and strategic skills in the context of meeting performance goals.

From this assessment, you define your leadership behavior that you as a leader will adopt:

Engagement and Skill Set StageRecommended Leader Behavior
Low level of engagement and/or skill setPrescribe/Direct
Moderately low level of engagement and/or skill setCoach/Instruct
Moderately high level of engagement and/or skill set


High level of engagement and/or skill setInspire/Empower

Prescribing/Directing: Telling players the what, where, when, and how of an issue.
Coaching/Instructing: De-emphasizing the how in favor of the why.
Coordinating/Partnering: Working alongside the player.
Inspiring/Empowering: Allowing team members to run with the ball.

The goal is to guide your organization to reach the highest level of allowing team members to run with the ball, but another reality is that this is a journey, not a destination. There will always be an influx of new people, new challenges to meet, and new teams formed with different interpersonal dynamics that will make this a continuous cycle.