Sometimes you might need a guardrail to make the right decision!

Guardrails are a tool to ensure alignment with the organization’s goals and objectives and to keep people on the right path.  Well-formed guardrails conform to five attributes that help teams and individuals make decisions. The power of guardrails lays in the fact that they shape decisions by defining boundaries. As a consultant, the first time a client asks a question, the answer almost always needs to be “it depends”. No boundaries or guardrails for the decision have been established. The four values stated in the Agile Manifesto establish a set of guardrails to guide decisions.  For example, the Manifesto states that “we have come to value working software over comprehensive documentation”. That value does not state that documentation is never a good idea but rather establishes a bias when deciding how much documentation the work requires. The value as stated in the manifesto provides a starting point for guiding behavior. Four common ways guardrails impact decision making include:

  1. Guardrails define a range of acceptable behavior.  The range between the guardrails allows teams and individuals to determine their own course.  Self-determination empowers people who are closest to the work to react to the situation. (This is a form of spectrum thinking – listen to the interview with Julia Wester).
  2. Guardrails speed up the decision process.  Providing a range of possible solutions to A question provides a starting point for decisions, cutting down the time needed to make a decision.  Most of the readers of the blog will have taken tests. In general, which type of question takes longer to answer: a question requiring a short free-form answer or one that is multiple choice?  The multiple choice question provides a set of answers– guardrails to speed up the answering process.
  3. Guardrails provide teams and individuals independence to make business decisions based on context without sacrificing alignment. One of the standard tenets of efficient software development (all forms) is that the business defines what needs to be done.  The “what” defines the business problem the developers (broadest usage) need to solve – these are guardrails. The technical team then defines how they will solve the business problem. Technical and architectural standards, guardrails, provide an environment that allows the team to make decisions without having to ask for permission.
  4. Guardrails reduce risk. During a recent trip to India, I used a set of guardrails to ensure I did not eat food that would have upset my wimpy guts.  If solid food was not cooked or peelable I steered clear. I used the guardrail to reduce the risk that I would lose time that would be better spent seeing India.  The architectural guideline provides the same service for software developers. The goal of the guardrail is to reduce the possibility of rework based on research and experiments performed by others so that as much time as possible is spent solving business problems.

Guardrails define a range of possible decisions. In doing so guardrails constrain behavior but at the same time empower teams and individuals to make decisions within that range with far less oversight. An agile mindset requires empowerment and responsibility so people can make decisions when they need to be made.  Guardrails provide organizational support and guidance needed to speed up the decision process while keeping decisions aligned to core goals and values of the organization.


Next:  When Are Guardrails A Bad Idea