Creating Boundaries For Growth & Success

In life and work, there are many boundaries.  For example, there are personal ones; interpersonal ones and systemic ones, just to name a few.  And then there are organizational boundaries.  These are the ones that intrigue me most because they are the most difficult to manage and yet can be just the thing that makes growth and success possible.

The trouble with organizational boundaries though, is that so often they are defined by rules and procedures that have a tendency to limit creative ability and collaborative effort.  That can be very stifling for both the organization and most certainly for the people who work in it.  In my mind, boundaries built on rules and procedures alone make an organization look a bit like this:

It has a rather claustrophobic feeling about it, doesn’t it? And, its walls are solid and unbending.  In an atmosphere like this, I can imagine how hard it must be to engage people in creative thinking, (and doing), because really, there seems to be no way out of the ‘boundary box’.  In this scenario, boundaries create a static space with little room for fresh ideas or growth.

But, let’s not get carried away.  Boundaries are a necessary part of every organization.  Without them, we invite chaos, distraction, and confusion with everyone running around doing their own thing and nothing meaningful being accomplished.

The thing is, boundaries don’t have to limit our ability to put our heads together and come up with ideas and activities that bring the workplace alive and produce something meaningful and fulfilling.

In fact, if expressed differently they can serve the creative process amazingly well.  Here’s what it might look like:

You may notice that the Legal and Ethical boundary appears at the bottom of both images.  There’s no getting away from that one.  It is in no way flexible and serves as the foundation for any reputable organization’s dealings.

The vision and purpose of the organization provides the uppermost boundary.  This speaks to the importance of creating, conveying and instilling a clear sense of purpose and future throughout the workforce. This is not simply about hanging framed vision statements on the wall.  It is something that acts as a guide to decision makers and leaders throughout the company regardless of their position or title.  It invites the question, “Does what we are about to do serve our organizational purpose and move us closer to realizing our ultimate goal?”

The boundaries on either side of the model are created by the Values the organization and its people espouse.  Values express our intentional behaviour and the qualities we hold as critical to the company and what it stands for. It also invites the question, “ Does what we are planning to do honour our values? If it doesn’t, what must we do differently to ensure alignment?”

Finally, the Creative space here is not so much restricted by hard and fast rules but guided by a set of principles that makes sense to everyone. They are open to challenge. They respond to changing times and situations. And that makes the creative space alive and dynamic.

Of course, if there were a downside to this kind of boundary making, it would be the greyness of its nature.  Rules are black and white, right or wrong… vision, purpose and values…not so much. These can be open to interpretation from one person to the next.  As such, they require ongoing attention, management and leadership.  Their messages must be constantly referenced and reinforced.  And too, there must be a strong belief in the will and capability of people to see themselves in the organizational vision, working with others to fulfill its purpose and aligning themselves with the values it embraces.

For the leader, it is not easy work…not at all.  To me, though, it is work worth pursuing because, done well, it increases the potential of companies to successfully build something that everyone involved can feel proud of.

What do you think?

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7 Comments

Filed under Employee engagement, Establishing Direction, Leadership, Leadership Values, Leadership Vision, Management

7 responses to “Creating Boundaries For Growth & Success

  1. Gwyn,
    I think this is another, in a long line of, thinking-provoking posts.
    Sounds great. How difficult is implementation?

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Larry,

      Well, first I think it much harder to implement in an already established organization that is more used to being governed by a set of hard rules than in one that is just starting out.
      As well, organizations that are governed by vision, purpose and values require attention and visible leadership to advocate alignment. Hiring practices, among other things need to be positioned with organizational values clearly in mind, as do decision making practices among other things.
      I think too, that once established, values-driven organizations become much easier. They also attract more skill and talent and the values they work from provide the optimal opportunity for success.
      Your thoughts?

  2. Hi Gwyn,

    Great post! I’ve read it three times and have enjoyed mulling it over this morning. It occurs to me that it is quite applicable to all kinds of organizations, including (and especially) families.

    It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that creativity requires total freedom. But I agree with you that there needs to be a container. Otherwise our creative ideas are like a popcorn machine without a lid, shooting out and landing haplessly all over the place. You make a cogent argument that the better container is purpose, vision and values rather than rules and procedures. (which your excellent diagrams depict very well!) However, I suspect you are not advocating for abolishing rules and procedures in organizations, and if so, am wondering how you would depict them so they are supportive of creativity rather than constricting.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post and a great Sunday read!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Jesse,

      First I love the image of the popcorn machine, which describes very well what I too have in mind when I think about organizations, or families, with no boundaries at all.
      And, no, as you suspect, I’m not advocating the abolition of rules and procedures. However, I am asking us to view them less traditionally.
      For one thing, when I think of procedures I think more about technological processes that allow for the mechanics of systems to work effectively. These are necessary scientific parts of the organizational ‘machine’ driven by people who govern them but are not governed by them.
      As for rules, there will always be those, but in a values-driven organization, rules are made in alignment with the values it espouses. As such, they are subject to ongoing challenge and review. They exist for a purpose that can be easily connected to what’s important.
      It is easy to fall into the trap of allowing rules and procedures to govern us because it’s less complicated. The trouble is, rules and procedures have a tendency to become quickly outdated and yet often continue to preside over organizational life long after they have outlived their relevance and usefulness.
      Some might think that using values as a primary governor is too soft an approach but I believe they ask for much more of us than rules alone do. They are the greater taskmasters demanding more than blind obedience.
      As for how I would depict all of that on the diagram, I’m having to give that one more thought. Any suggestions?
      Jesse, thank you for your insightful contribution to this post and for helping me to think more about this.

      • What comes to mind as I read your response is that there are some important things you can’t legislate (e.g. morality), but those same things are guided quite nicely by values.

        Thanks for such a thorough and thoughtful response.

  3. Dear Gwyn – I too agree that boundaries can help make space for creativity. In fact without boundaries we have outer space, sort of like no space at all, where we float whichever way gravity allows. Procedural boundaries allow us to do some things without much thought. That leaves space and time in our minds for creative play.

    I suspect even the boundary you set to write a post each week in some way created the pressure and the space to come up with this excellent post that creatively links boundaries and creativity.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Dear Anne ~ you provide yet another perspective about the usefulness of procedural boundaries. I can see that they do have a place in providing a ‘thinking’ break and making room for more creative things. Thank you for that and for your kind words that never cease to touch me.

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