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Leading Across Boundaries

Over the past months I have spend a fair amount of time listening hard and reflecting for colleagues on the common dilemma of how to lead across boundaries. Boundaries not just in the global sense of between countries, but equally at a comparatively local level between professional teams, services and internal 'silos' which all of us wish didn't exist.

I found and read this short article below adapted from Boundary Spanning Leadership by Christopher Ernst & Donna Chrobot-Mason, that summarises so many of the issues and proposes a number of possible tactics (boundary spanning practices) to mitigate the problems. I hope you find the content useful.

In a twist to current thinking about our global, interconnected society, we believe that the world is indeed boundless and flat, but that human relationships are still bounded and confined by powerful limits.

In a flat world, bridging boundaries between groups is the new and critical work of leadership.

Since Thomas Friedman's 2005 bestseller, The World Is Flat, was first published, the world of business has felt anything but flat — the landscape wrinkled by the global financial crisis, climate change, the energy crisis and political and religious unrest.

Why do things feel bumpier than ever? Of course there's no single answer, but we believe that the connections in our physical world have now outstripped the connections in our relational world. What is happening is that advances in Internet and collaboration technologies have dismantled many of the boundaries that once prevented people from working together. Yet as physical boundaries have been removed, the boundaries that still exist in human relationships remain, in sharp and jagged relief.

The boundaries that matter most today are psychological and emotional rather than organizational and structural. The divides and rifts in our businesses, communities, regions and countries are largely about identity: our core values, how we define ourselves and our beliefs concerning how we fit within our social world.

There is no quick fix or technical solution to solve problems rooted in the deeper dynamics of human relationships: trust, respect, common purpose, safety, belonging and uniqueness.

In navigating today's unfamiliar terrain, we are all challenged to think and act beyond the current borders that confine us, our teams and our organizations as a whole. We must gain a new understanding of vertical, horizontal, stakeholder, demographic and geographic boundaries and seek new solutions at the nexus where groups collide, intersect and link.

What does boundary spanning leadership look like in practice?

It can be seen when a cross-functional team with a history of poor performance becomes an innovation engine.

It is a key that unlocks the effectiveness of a virtual team by drawing on the talent and perspectives of its diverse members.

It is about creating time and space for each of us to open up to change, strengthen interdependence, transform the current state and reinvent what is possible.

Boundary Spanning Practices

Boundary spanning leadership involves six practices that help us to 1) manage boundaries, 2) forge common ground and 3) discover new frontiers.

Manage boundaries.

The first step to spanning boundaries is, ironically, to create or strengthen them. You must be able to see group boundaries clearly before you can bridge them. Two practices – buffering and reflecting – enable you to manage the boundaries between groups. The practice of buffering involves defining boundaries to create safety between groups. Buffers monitor and protect the flow of information and resources across boundaries. Once groups have achieved a state of safety between them, the next practice, reflecting, involves understanding boundaries to foster respect. Reflectors represent distinct perspectives and facilitate knowledge exchange across groups.

Forge common ground.

Common ground represents what is universal and shared. To forge common ground is to bring groups together to achieve a larger purpose. Two boundary spanning practices — connecting and mobilizing — enable you to tap into the human need to be part of something larger than yourself. The practice of connectingmobilizing, involves reframing boundaries to develop community and craft common purpose.

Discover new frontiers.

A frontier is a place of emergent possibility. It represents the outer limits, the location where the most advanced and breakthrough thinking resides. The final two boundary spanning practices — weaving and transforming — enable you to discover new frontiers where similarities and differences meet. Weaving occurs when boundaries are interlaced in new ways to advance intergroup interdependence. Weavers draw out and integrate group differences within a larger whole. Once groups have achieved a state of interdependence, the final practice, transforming, is about reinvention. Transformers bring multiple groups together in new directions to realize emergent possibilities.

For me the common theme so many managers and leaders face is recognising and dealing with the challenge of 'human relationships still being bounded and confined by powerful limits'. While it is easy to diagnose the issue, the solutions are far more difficult.

However, I am often reminded that what it takes are 'adult to adult' conversations demonstrating a clear understanding of the 'others' needs while maintaining the ultimate goal of the business / service need first.

The founding principles of these conversations are trust, respect, common purpose, safety, belonging and uniqueness. Remembering these while leading across boundaries does enhance the likelihood of success in leadership. I have certainly found it works with and for clients I coach and mentor.

Peter Buckley

I coach and develop individuals and businesses, in the private and public sector, Internationally and in the UK at board C-Suite and operational levels. Acknowledged outstanding results delivered through bespoke individual and team coaching, mentoring and leadership development to enable performance and productivity improvement with positive team dynamics and sustainable enhanced morale.


#1 Latashia 2017-08-05 13:52
Greetings! Quite helpful advice on this article!
It truly is the small changes that make the largest changes.
Thanks a lot for sharing!

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