Grow as a Leader with Montessori Principles: Part 4 — Freedom within limits

Grow as a Leader with Montessori Principles: Part 4 — Freedom within limits

This is the fourth part of a 6-part series on using the Montessori Principles to guide you as a Leader. Today we will discuss how important it is to have clear boundaries when creating an environment that incentivises autonomy. This is the first "how" principle of the series and it can be pretty counterintuitive, so read on.

Boundaries in the classroom

If you have read my previous articles, you know that the Montessori method and principles focus on enhancing children's autonomy and competency. When we think about autonomy, we often assume it means complete freedom, and perhaps this is our expectation when walking into a Montessori school - the idea of seeing children running wild. However, last year, I visited my daughter's class at her nursery as an external observer. I was surprised to see 15 children aged between 3-5 completely absorbed in their activities, happy, focused. I observed an environment where teachers clearly defined the boundaries and supported the children in learning how to cope with them both practically and emotionally.

Writing about this experience has been personally challenging as it mirrors my own struggle. As a father, I'm striving to strike a balance in my communication, aiming to be both firm and kind. Moreover, it was only last year that I realized how blurry boundaries can hinder autonomy. This was a significant revelation. Having grown up in an authoritarian family, I constantly push myself to express my thoughts in a non-authoritarian way, often struggling to express them. I initially believed setting boundaries strictly for dangerous situations or actions with potential negative impacts would be an excellent framework for my daughter's growth and confidence. However, I've learned that the truth is more nuanced and that finding the right balance is the real challenge.

Boundaries at work

Boundaries are critical for interactions with others in every aspect of our lives. They guide us in achieving our needs, cooperating, and coexisting. However, at work, we often prefer to keep some boundaries blurry.

As a leader, your role is to help people comprehend these boundaries and understand their significance. In the following two sections, we will explore strategies for effectively conveying boundaries to enhance team autonomy and foster competency.

Communicate boundaries and expectations clearly

I find blurry boundaries are quite common in the work environment, particularly in certain aspects of working life. Indeed, aspects that make the company liable are often well-defined in employment contracts and additional compliance documents but not in the daily activities inside departments or teams.

Outside this space, the leaders in the organisation have the responsibility to define and communicate those boundaries. In my experience, the 3 key reasons boundaries are not expressed at this level are:

  • Firstly, we often try to avoid difficult conversations.
  • Secondly, we fear that verbalizing these boundaries may affect team engagement and a sense of autonomy.
  • Lastly, sometimes we have not sat down and thought about these boundaries systematically, instead creating them ad hoc as we moved along

I remember once while working at Babylon, I joined a meeting with a senior leader to discuss the best architectural solution for new requirements from one of our clients. My team assumed we had to build what the client asked (the assumed boundary) and presented quite a complex solution. To everyone's surprise, the senior leader said why not push back on some of the requirements (the actual boundary) and proposed a much simpler solution. Weeks of work to present a relatively complex solution could have been prevented if everybody had been aware of the possibility of negotiating the requirement.

Was that autonomy? Let's imagine that someone gives you the assignment to create a painting on a white canvas, but after you find out that the painting must fit a frame with a specific size and shape. Wouldn't you prefer to know the frame expectations in advance? The truth is that the boundaries of our autonomy make a difference, so you want to know them upfront.

Now I don't want to give you the impression that having many boundaries is good. It isn't. However, it is imperative to verbalise the existing ones to avoid confusion and frustration. When you join a team or a department, always try to understand the boundaries, validate them with the team, and ensure everyone knows them.

Create an Autonomy map.

Now that the existing boundaries are made visible, the next step is to analyse them to understand if some can be removed or if something needs to be added.

I have used in the past what I call Autonomy map (or Freedom map if I want to sound more dramatic).

As you can see, this is a straightforward way to classify decisions within a team or department. If the decision has been made for the team (a strong boundary) then I use the red color, if it requires external buy-in (a soft boundary) the I use the amber color and finally green for decision that the team can take in autonomy. Normally for a team those decisions can be dividedin process, product and technology decisions as you can see below.

Autonomy map for Babylon engineering teams in January 2021

I undertook this exercise when I joined Babylon. Our department faced challenges with engagement. Given that the lockdown had greatly curtailed many of our freedoms, I was keen to gain a deeper understanding of the constraints that the team's boundaries were imposing at work. The insights were revealing for me; while the decreased freedom was a result of incomplete organizational transformations, examining them collectively indeed presented a challenging picture

  • While the company was moving toward a product team, decisions on what to build weren't part of the team's remit.
  • With the technology department growing significantly, the company was going through a rationalisation of the language/technology/framework the engineering team could use.
  • While the dual career track was already in place, the engineering leaders were the ones people expected to make the technical decision.
  • Working in a highly regulated environment meant that specific process improvements were limited and more complicated.

After looking at it, we realised that the first boundary would become much looser with the transition to product teams, so the only action was to support the transition to outcome-based goals for the teams. The other area we started working on was to help the new Engineering Manager focus more on growing the team and delegating more technical decisions to them.

The great value of mapping your boundaries is choosing where to add more autonomy based on your context. For example, an early-stage company in an unregulated environment can keep technology choices more open and more manoeuvrability in software processes.

I invite you to try this exercise with your team. To simplify the process, you can use this Miro template I created.

Next Time

Today we have seen how to increase autonomy by clearly communicating the boundaries within which teams operate and how to use this information to analyze areas where we can grant more freedom. The next article will focus on another "How" principle: respect. How do we help teams and individuals grow while respecting that their needs, maturity, and goals are different?