When people are driving, it is important for everyone to stay in their lanes, and only switch lanes when it is clear. Driving is a complex activity with a simple goal—get from point A to point B, as safely and (usually) as quickly as possible.
“Staying in your lane” is appropriate for achieving simple and linear goals. However, it is not the best approach for complex work that requires multiple perspectives, human creativity and collaboration. For example, in designing roads, it is necessary to incorporate many perspectives, including drivers, driverless cars, mass transit, pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, neighborhoods, environmental and aesthetic considerations, as well as material science and engineering principles. Each of these points of view must be blended into solutions that are workable, if not optimal, to everyone involved or impacted by road design decisions.
In my experience, most work is more like designing roads than driving on them. There is too much “stay in your lane” messaging when “get out of your lane” thinking is required to solve complex problems. At first glance, “stay in your lane” might seem to make sense in terms of dividing work and responsibility. However, it stifles creativity and keeps everyone thinking too small.
“Stay in your lane” thinking leads to failure of the whole because there is no cross-over of ideas among the parts and too few people take responsibility for the big picture. To be successful, the parts must listen to and see each other, ask questions and offer ideas outside of their “lanes,” and to see the larger patterns and inter-dependencies.
So many times, I have seen the breakthrough ideas, or the seeds of them, come from people with the least amount of expertise in where teams are stuck. Expertise itself can become a trap of well-worn, familiar roads, where you can no longer see the landscape or detail—like driving on auto-pilot. Being forced to answer simple (“stupid”) questions and respond to fresh (“radical”) ideas from non-experts has a way of causing the experts to identify their basic assumptions, see the landscape with fresh eyes and possibly discover new avenues of thinking. When teams get to learn about other lanes, routes and geographic layers of the road, people become more invested, more satisfied and more trusting of one another.
In my career, I have worked with two managers, Deb Donohue and Barry Caplin, who were brilliant in creating team structures that required people to get out of their “lanes.”
Deb had a team of 10-12 analysts, with a lot of complex work to cover. She and the team identified the domain areas and designated leads for each domain, based on people’s interest and expertise. The leads became the experts and decision-makers for their areas. Others on Deb’s team were designated as team members for each domain, responsible to back-up the leads and serve in an advisory capacity to the team leads. Everyone on Deb’s team was a lead for at least one domain, and participated as a team member for 2-3 other domains. This structure clearly defined who was responsible for each domain, but gave non-lead, team members voice to offer feedback and ideas.
Barry had a similar approach. He also designated domain leads who were decision-makers but he expected everyone on the team to provide their perspectives, ideas, opinions and feedback for domains they did not lead. It was an expectation that each lead vet their ideas with all other team members. All were leaders and all were team members. No one was ever told to “stay in their lanes” because they were all responsible for each other’s success and the whole.
If you are an organizational leader, think about how to create structures that encourage people to get out of their lanes to ask questions, offer ideas and feedback outside of their primary areas of expertise. If you do this, you will get better decisions and more productive and satisfied teams. Most people don’t want to “stay in their lanes.” They want to learn, offer ideas and contribute broadly. “Stay in your lane” thinking and messaging doesn’t allow people to bring all of their curiosity and creativity to work. For today’s challenges, we need all of the curiosity and creativity we can get!