Boundaries create the freedom to innovate

Complex change
16th February 2016

Making change happen is difficult. But sometimes we make it harder than it needs to be. In complex organisations where services are interconnected and interdependent, one of the most helpful interventions we can make is to clearly define the parameters for change.

 Boundaries help people make sense of what aspect of their world is changing and what, for now, is staying the same. It’s an element of the change process that tends to get cursory attention. My guess is that it gets caught up in the ‘we don’t want to be too prescriptive’ box.

The result? We heighten the anxiety for those caught up in the change. 

A clearly bounded change initiative helps create the security for people to let go of personal concerns and put their energies into moving forward. Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs has been an enduring guide for me in this respect. It’s hard for people to rise to the challenge if they’re experiencing crippling anxiety about what the change means for them.

Sure, people will feel insecure in the face of change whatever you do. But this is about minimising the impact as they navigate the transition. Ralph Stacey refers to the ideal state for change as ‘bounded instability’. The status quo is disturbed enough for people to view their current situation with fresh eyes. Strong parameters support them to feel secure enough to explore alternatives to improve the situation.

Humans have an innate need for certainty so we have to build some into the process. Here are some examples of the kind of parameters I’m referring to:

  • Quality driven e.g. ” the minimum standard we must achieve”
  • Workforce issues e.g. “the current staffing model is unsustainable”
  • Time factors e.g. “We have till x date to address this”
  • Budgetary constraints e.g. “we have to keep within £x budget”

Goal orientated approaches are often viewed with derision within complex adaptive systems such as health and care settings. It’s true, it’s difficult to predict where you will end up in relation to the goal. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have their place. Without some direction, change programmes can meander uncomfortably for all involved.

Paradoxically, a strong boundary helps people feel safe enough to be creative and experiment. And it’s the same boundary that allows the leader to relinquish control and focus their energies on facilitating the team to work things out for themselves. A bit like good parenting I imagine.

Without an imperative driving the change there will be little motivation to act. Besides, it’s difficult to push back the boundaries if no one agrees where they are now.

Of course setting the boundary is not a once-only activity. The parameters are renegotiated as small changes lead to bigger transformations. In time the whole system has to adapt to accommodate the changes happening within.

For me balance is the key. Yin and yang. A pair of opposites working in service of the other.

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