Without parameters, without constraints…we have a tendency to wander about aimlessly.

Every so often we enjoy engaging as a family in an afternoon of bowling.  It is a fun activity that allows for a bit of exercise, creativity and even some family-friendly competition.

And while my two boys were young when we first started playing, they understood that the goal of the game was to knock down as many pins as possible.  Unfortunately, that goal can sound easier than it truly is…especially, when you are small.  Actually, that goal can end up being quite difficult, even elusive. Especially when they are so focused on just rolling the ball down the lane that there is little or no ability left to focus on accuracy.

So, even though they could reach the pins, very often the ball would be in the gutter far before there was any chance of doing any damage.  So to help them with this, we would bring out the ‘guide stand’ which allowed them to point and roll the ball more accurately at the pins.

The only problem, the ‘guide stand’ changed the whole feel of the game.  It seemed to stifle the exhilaration and creativity of going up and rolling the ball on your own.  It felt too confining and seemed to squash out a bit of the joy and fun from the whole experience.

So the dilemma remained…how to keep the experience creative and fun without having their ball end up in the gutter every time they rolled it down the lane?

What we found was an option that we did not know existed, guardrails.  These guardrails existed on every lane and could be set to pop up only for those bowlers who requested or needed them.  It allowed the bowler to enjoy the entire experience without having their ball end up in the gutter with every roll.  It allowed my sons to engage in the fun, creativity and competition of the experience without it becoming an exercise in futility and frustration.

Guardrails provided positive constraints without diminishing the overall experience.

Which is an important idea for leaders to remember…we can provide constraints without being confining.  Constraints, when used properly and effectively, are important to supporting and focusing an organization and those within.  Just like those guardrails in bowling, constraints allow us the freedom to implement and try things without losing focus on the end goal and what we are trying to accomplish.

Guardrails serve as positive parameters towards more creativity and innovation…

Guardrails allow people freedom of expression, a chance to experiment and try things on their own, to add their own expression and creativity to their work, and yet provide the constraints, parameters, and guidelines that keep that same creativity and innovation from ending up in the gutter.

Supporting without stifling…

This is not to say that because you have added guardrails everything will be a strike. Very often, especially in the beginning, it won’t keep some from missing most, if not all of the pins. However, it does provide a feeling of safety and a better a chance of hitting the intended target.  As well as keeping everyone focused on the goal, more than the gutter.

And the great thing about guardrails…they are not permanent. They can be taken down as people become more proficient, stronger, and more adept.  Guardrails are a temporary support, not a long-term requirement.

We must remember, we all long to improve, to gain mastery, to have more autonomy, to be more creative and innovative…and that requires support as well as release.  We all want these things, but when we are ready.

Guardrails, parameters and constraints not only give that support to release…but provide us those boundaries to push against that continually engage our individual and organizational creativity and innovation.

“The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self.  And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.”  -Igor Stravinsky


One thought on “‘Guardrails’

  1. Great metaphor David. It would be cool if you could even just have one guard rail up. Let’s say you knew that if it was going in the gutter it almost always went in the left gutter. So what does partial and targeted scaffolding look like?

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