Leadership in Agile Organizations: The importance of boundaries and clear assignments

Agile way of working, agile organization, Scrum, squads, Holacracy, whatever it’s called in your organization and whatever the shape it takes: working in a new way requires a new leadership style. In a series of articles, I will take you on a journey through the subject of leadership in agile organizations.
18 October 2018
Minke Buizer
  • Agile leadership
Tijdens een agile training wordt het scrum framework in elkaar gezet

Reptile brain

We’ve all been in this situation: As soon as you walk into a room you notice something is off, without anyone telling you so. The most primal part of our brain, the reptile brain signals you to beware.

There are many factors that contribute to a sense of psychological (in-)security. This article will focus on one of them: the importance of clear boundaries. All of us, as individuals and employees require a certain level of security. For some this means a preference for predictability in their work, others might require a clear awareness of what level of autonomy in decision making the organization permits.

In his research on organizations and change Joost Kampen draws a parallel between insights from remedial education and the behavior of people in corporate environments. It states great leadership is a combination of being available emotionally and setting clear boundaries.

The role of agile leaders

Leadership, including setting boundaries, is not just the domain of managers, team leaders and directors. Wherever you stimulate taking responsibility you may (happily) expect to find leadership.

André Wierdsma, professor of Organization and co-creation at Nyenrode Business University, recently wrote the following: ‘By nature people are very sensitive to authority and in- and exclusion. We are afraid the herd will leave us behind. True self-management, therefore does not exist, because there are always people that take the lead and shape this self-management. All groups require clarity on axes of freedom, values and the rules of the game. Even in organizations with a very flat hierarchy that seek to empower the lowest possible levels in the organization, leadership activities remain important. It is possible, however, to redistribute these activities.’

Boundaries, clear assignments and agile organization

The most common way to organize in an agile way is Scrum. One of the core strengths of Scrum is that it is highly structured. The product owner represents the customer and has a clear vision on what problems need to be solved. He or she is in charge of what: What needs to happen, and in which order. Budget and time allotted present other boundaries, as do other projects, and stakeholders the team needs to take into account.

Within these boundaries, the team has a high level of freedom. The team is in charge of how. How will we solve the customer’s problems and what should that look like. On the basis of regular feedback the product is developed by the team while continuously focusing on delivering maximum value for the customer.

What happens when you set a teams’ boundaries too narrow? You will rapidly lose all initiative. Instead the team will look to the product owner for even the smallest decisions and all energy will drain from the team. (sounds familiar? non-agile projects are even more susceptible to this)

Personally, I have found that a Scrum team with a Product Owner that has set the team boundaries too wide can usually still function reasonably well (especially compared to a team with very constricting boundaries). What will hopefully happen with such a team is that by using reviews and feedback from customers and stakeholders the boundaries will become clear over time. Either the team finds the guardrails by itself eventually, or the team is able to link the project to the organization’s purpose and priorities.

Real world examples

One of the organizations I am supporting in their agile transformation uses a very incremental experimenting approach. During their transformation I was struck by the lack of clarity and transparency in all steps of the process. Employees were at a loss about what strategic direction the management envisioned as there were multiple conflicting strategic directions. In order to become agile leaders, the first order of business is for the top leadership to agree on boundaries for the organization. On top of this we will devote considerable time to clear communication and leading by example.

Interestingly, in organizations where this is clear, agile teams are quite often not happy with these boundaries right away. Rather they feel they are being restricted in their freedom. True master ship lies in being able to provide teams with exactly the right amount of freedom. Finding -and maintaining- a balance over time is what every agile organization’s leadership needs to make a priority.

A clear purpose

Every team or management assignment should be in line with the organization’s reason for being. This serves as a compass. What are we all about? And what is outside the scope of our organization?

It is often referred to as a purpose, the Why (Simon Sinek), Intention (Wouter Hart). A purpose is not merely about making money. Rather, a purpose serves to energize employees end offers customers a way to connect with your company.


Making boundaries explicit and giving clear assignments is crucial in an agile organization. Only when these are explicit and clear teams will feel the freedom to do what is required for the customer. Leadership’s role is to offer clarity or create a situation in which boundaries will automatically become clear over time. Tip: don’t forget a clear purpose.

Need inspiration? Morning star, a leading tomato processing company works by these two principles: ‘No use of force’ leading to total freedom, and ‘Keep your commitments’ which leads to total accountability.

Minke Buizer

Vernieuwer, strateeg, pragmatisch
Ik adviseer en begeleid organisaties in de transitie naar duurzame en regeneratieve organisaties. Hierbij focus ik mij op de gedragsverandering en verandering organisatiestructuur die hiervoor nodig is. Dit vraagt specifiek van toezichthouders en ondernemingsraden om een andere taakinvulling.