A phrase I hear myself uttering to colleagues on a regular basis is “guard your boundaries.” The underlying message being that if each of us doesn’t articulate and honor our own constraints, no one else will. Each time I say this, I hear a faint echo of a voice telling me to expand on this idea and apply it to the work I do. Recently, the voice got a little louder so I decided to pay attention. To mollify the nagging imperative, I chose to widen the lens and examine the notion of setting and minding boundaries within the context of Project Execution. The point I hope to make is that boundaries assist in preventing ambiguity, miscommunication, and frustration from interfering with a team’s ability to focus on the work that is critical to the success of their projects. Moreover, exercising the discipline of defining and fortifying boundaries among teams is a practice that leads to favorable project outcomes and facilitates an emerging harmony among team members.
With the collapsing of traditional hierarchies, the blending of teams, and the preeminence of matrixed organizations, it is easy to lose sight of the utility of establishing, acknowledging, and respecting project constraints. Environments where boundaries are not clearly defined, communicated, and reviewed are fertile ground for conflicts that are not healthy for teams. Some challenges that can emerge include the following:
- People taking on too much responsibility which can make their core work suffer. This behavior frequently leads to burnout.
- With people splitting time across multiple projects as well as their functional teams, they are in service of more than one boss. As a result, accountability can become diluted. For example, when people surface project issues in conversations outside the confines of the project team, they risk spinning up unnecessary drama. Without the appropriate context, rumor and gossip can emerge.
- When role and task boundaries are not clear, it is easy for energetic team members to swim outside their lanes leading to role conflict.
- Ambiguity about roles and their associated responsibilities has the knock-on effect of tasks not having proper ownership.
- Unspoken and unmet expectations related to team members’ availability stokes discord among the group.
On the other hand, teams that understand and respect boundaries reflect healthier team dynamics. Characteristics of these teams include:
- A delineation between core team responsibilities that removes ambiguity, fosters ownership, and empowers team members to operate with autonomy.
- Teams that are aligned on roles, responsibilities, and the project approach experience higher levels of trust and demonstrate greater accountability to the project.
- Taking the guesswork out of team operations leads to psychologically safe environments where team members are more likely to engage and offer input above and beyond what they might contribute within environments that are chaotic.
The remainder of this essay is an examination of boundaries through the lens of project execution. By highlighting the importance of establishing and guarding boundaries as a means of mitigating certain challenges inherent in working within matrixed organizations, I aim to demonstrate that considering the topic of boundaries deliberately can lead to better project outcomes.
Mind the Matrix
An aspect of matrixed organizations that I have found to be challenging as a project lead, is the behavior of team members playing one boss off the other. When people are not happy about something that is happening on a project, they may share their frustration with their functional manager instead of voicing their concern with their project leader. Seeking outside input dilutes accountability to the project and the project team. Also, when lodging complaints, they tend to deliver a narrative that favors their position and diminishes that of the project lead. This imbalance can lead to time wasted chasing down open loops and unnecessary drama resulting from miscommunication, all of which undermines a project team’s cohesion and trust. Teams thrive when there is shared accountability. When team members think they need to escalate project complaints to their managers, the team dynamics are not healthy and project outcomes suffer.
I have found it useful to get to know or reacquaint myself with the “people managers” of teams I lead. Establishing a rapport, building trust, and seeking input from these managers helps me establish credibility with them in advance of situations where they might catch back-channel gripes from folks they manage who play a role on projects I am leading.
When getting to know managers, I like to learn about people’s allocation to the project I’m leading as well as their other responsibilities. Without a shared understanding of availability and competing priorities, there is a high probability that my expectations for capacity and that of the team will not be aligned. Chaos will ensue.
When there is alignment on capacity and priorities, I calibrate team members’ assignments with an awareness of the time they can commit to the project. If more or less time is required of them to complete their work, I check-in with their managers and we work out the right balance. Compromises are common; however, when balanced against the goodwill that grows from minding this boundary, I have found that the compromises are incidental and do not impede a healthy team’s ability to deliver.
Decision Making Authority
Have you ever been in one of those meetings and you know there will be no resolution to the issue the group is discussing because the group lacks the authority to make a decision that will bring the issue to a close? I have. When discussions lack a natural closing because the groups involved are not empowered to make certain decisions, the conversation tends to go in circles. These events waste time and create frustration among the individuals involved. Also, teams will revisit unresolved issues (multiple times in some cases) and repeat discussions, again realizing no conclusions.
In situations that require a decision, it is best to ensure that someone with the ability and authority to make “a call” is involved or has granted the group authority to make necessary decisions. In the absence of these options, a project leader can reframe the objective to be an effort to arrive at recommendations for how to bring the issue to a close. Knowing the limits of the group’s authority prior to engaging in discussion provides a framework within which the team can operate with less ambiguity about the outcome they are pursuing.
Similarly, without clear guidance from leadership, teams struggle, not knowing when and how to escalate issues that are outside of their authority to influence. I have seen teams twist themselves into knots trying to avoid having to seek guidance from their leadership. Perhaps there is a cultural imperative that drives individuals to self-solve or prior attempts to escalate were not welcome; whatever the case, a project leader can side-step these issues by working with project stakeholders (sponsors and team members alike) to formalize an escalation process that respects the organizational norms that are at work. Getting stakeholder buy in on escalation triggers and escalation approach can eliminate a source of time wasting and anxiety for project teams.
Work the Schedule
In matrixed companies, we are seldom blessed with a team of individuals that are 100% dedicated to our project. The reality is that our teams comprise multiple fractionally allocated members. Each arrives with an existing set of responsibilities, limiting his or her capacity to contribute to our project. I have experienced better outcomes when, at the outset of a project, my teams engage in a frank discussion about their capacity constraints (real and perceived). When every member of the team is aware of the availability of the rest of his or her teammates, they modify their expectations to better reflect reality.
Given the challenge of fractionally allocated team members, I have found that being disciplined when timeboxing team member activities helps to spur productivity by instilling a sense of urgency. The trick is to strike a balance between availability of skills/time and the needs driving overarching project timelines. Making teams aware of the drivers of project dates and seeking their input on how to tackle the work can lead to creative solutions for managing constraints. Giving teams an opportunity to craft the work plan builds a shared sense accountability. When team members help build the schedule, they are tacitly committing to honor their timing estimates. With a sense of ownership, teams are more likely to do whatever it takes to meet their obligations.
In the real world, project scope changes, timelines shift, or backlogs are reprioritized perhaps including additional sprints, and we contend with personnel changes that are outside of our control. These challenges will never go away but with a foundation of open communication about team member capacity and shared ownership of the work breakdown, teams can respond to the challenges and offer thoughtful alternatives to mitigate issues.
How we Communicate
Regarding boundaries, the aspect of work-life that I spend the most time considering is communication. Specifically, I think a lot about how and when I’m communicating, as a way of modeling both how I intend to respect the boundaries of my colleagues and how I’d like them to regard mine.
As a project leader, I have found it to be critical to the long-term harmony of teams I manage to establish common ground early, with respect to communication tools, formats, and frequencies. Discussing preferred methods for communicating as a group allows everyone to hear, firsthand, how their teammates prefer to collaborate. For instance, some people prefer to pick up the phone, or fire off a text; others send emails or rely on instant messages (e.g., Slack, Teams, etc.). Let people know your preferences, seek to understand theirs, then strike a balance. This approach helps to build cohesion among the team and lets people’s voices be heard.
When we communicate is just as important as how we communicate. Homework is a fact of life but sharing my homework with my teams shouldn’t be a necessary side effect. A tactic I use when I author an email at night or on the weekends, is to set the delivery for the next day or the first of the week. I do this to telegraph my preferences and as an attempt to respect the personal lives of my peers.
Wrapping it Up
As boundaries relate to project execution, the handful I have discussed are a small sample but represent what I believe to be key aspects of project delivery. That is, if we get these right (i.e., keep unhealthy friction at bay, foster environments of shared accountability, and pay attention to how and when we communicate), we stand a better chance of bringing our projects home with a great deal of stakeholder satisfaction. As a project leader, it is useful to remember that there is no “one size fits all” model. The trick is to adopt a mindset of constant assessment, refinement, and practice. Teams will appreciate the effort and sponsors will be happy with the team’s results.
The irony of boundaries being liberating has always resonated with me. A thought I come back to time and again is the notion that we need to know what the rules are before we can break them. Boundaries are everywhere; recognizing them and operating with an awareness of the constraints they engender provides us a certain amount of freedom and creativity to build healthy, productive, and high-performing teams.