Why You Should Collaborate Across Boundaries
Boundary Spanning Is Essential
When times are tough, our natural tendency is to hunker down. Battle lines are drawn. Organizational silos get taller. Worldviews shrink, attitudes narrow, and positions tighten.
All too often, boundaries create borders that divide groups into Us and Them. The result can be fractured relationships, diminished resources, suboptimal results, and divisive conflict.
Yet, boundaries are also frontiers — a place of emergent opportunity and new possibility. Wherever group boundaries collide and intersect, there is potential for different ways of working and new forms of collaboration.
Through boundary spanning, leaders can reveal new frontiers for solving pressing problems, driving innovation, and leading change. By definition, boundary spanning is when leaders can work with a great variety of people from differing positions, backgrounds, and locations.
Managers traditionally learn to manage vertically — to work up the organizational chart with senior colleagues and downward with direct reports. But it’s also critical for managers to work horizontally, across functions, locations, and with external stakeholders.
As our world becomes more complex, leaders must transform from managers who understand and protect their boundaries to managers who practice boundary spanning. The leadership advantage goes to people who are able to work with a variety of colleagues from differing positions, backgrounds, and locations.
In a research report, we surveyed 128 senior-level executives who participated in our Leadership at the Peak program. Over 86% stated that it is “extremely important” to collaborate effectively across boundaries in their current leadership roles. However, only 7% of those executives reported feeling “very effective” at boundary spanning — a gap of 79 percentage points.
Leaders can close this gap by developing the collaborative skills, mindsets, and behaviors of Boundary-Spanning Leadership.
Effective Leaders Collaborate Across 5 Boundary Types
Though it can be a challenge to collaborate and navigate across boundaries, the solutions to today’s most pressing business challenges often rest at the intersection of multiple boundaries. That’s why boundary spanning leadership involves creating direction, alignment, and commitment across key boundaries.
Based on our research with leaders around the world, we can state with confidence that these 5 types of boundaries are universal, transcending cultures, contexts, and time. They’ve been with us in the past, they’re here today, and they aren’t going away tomorrow. The 5 types of boundaries that leaders need to span:
- Horizontal: between functions of the organization (expertise, departments, peers)
- Vertical: between hierarchical levels of the organization (rank, class, seniority, authority, power)
- Stakeholder: with external groups (customers, partners, constituencies, value chain, communities)
- Demographic: with diverse groups (gender, generation, nationality, culture, personality, ideology)
- Geographic: across localities (regions, markets, distances)
Horizontal boundaries separate groups by areas of experience and expertise. The negative costs of horizontal boundaries are revealed when one function is favored over another, when the work of one unit or product line threatens the viability of another, or when departments or functions work at cross-purposes.
Perhaps not surprisingly, our research with senior executives found that the challenges arising from horizontal boundaries were cited as a concern nearly 3-to-1 (71%) over those of the other 4 dimensions.
Facilitating cross-functional collaboration is one of the most common issues, and speaks to the challenge of boundary spanning. The unintended consequence of matrixed and regional structures is that walls have been erected between groups that need to be collaborating. As a result, “silo-busting” has become one of the leading pastimes for managers and executives. Facilitating lateral, cross-functional collaboration is the most common presenting issue that clients bring to our Organizational Leadership practice.
Vertical boundaries cross level, rank, seniority, authority, and power. The separation of groups into organizational hierarchy layers of top, middle, and entry-level — each with corresponding levels of authority — is a ubiquitous feature in nearly all organizations.
Vertical boundaries, in contrast, were the least frequently cited dimension. In the past, we expect this percentage would have been significantly higher. To this day, fingers remain pointed at hierarchy as the root cause for any number of organizational ills. Yet, perhaps as a result of decades of flattening organizations and improved communication systems, executives perceive vertical boundaries as less relevant or problematic than the other 4 types of boundaries.
Stakeholder boundaries are varied and many. Organizations must respond to customers, shareholders, boards of directors, partners, alliances, suppliers, vendors, advocacy groups, governments, non-governmental agencies, and local and global communities.
Demographic boundaries are found in the space between diverse groups. Demographic boundaries include the entire range of human diversity and social identity, from gender and race to education and ideology.
Geographic boundaries are represented by distance, locations, cultures, regions, and markets. Boundaries of geography create constraints when there is a need for collaboration across different locations.
In our research, geographic, demographic, and stakeholder boundaries were identified as challenges with relatively similar frequency (at 26%, 17%, and 17% respectively). These percentages likely will increase in the future.
As organizations expand their global footprint, employ an increasingly diverse talent pool, and seek new competitive advantage through complex inter-organizational alliances, joint ventures, and partnerships, leadership will increasingly be practiced at the juncture where geographic, demographic, and stakeholder boundaries intersect.
Boundary Spanning Leadership Practices
For most of us, it’s not easy to lead outside our box in the organizational chart, across the lines of stakeholder interests, and beyond the borders of the division or groups we represent.
Nevertheless, boundary spanning can be done.
Boundary-spanning leadership begins with managing existing boundaries, then expands to forging common ground, and, finally, moves into discovering new frontiers.
Using 6 boundary-spanning practices — buffering, reflecting, connecting, mobilizing, weaving, and transforming — leaders can solve problems, create innovative solutions, and transform their organizations. (Learn more about these 6 practices in our book, Boundary Spanning Leadership: Six Practices for Solving Problems, Driving Innovation, and Transforming Organizations.)
As you embark on boundary spanning, consider these 4 tips:
1. Start with the end in mind.
Consider the nature of your challenge and which boundaries (horizontal, vertical, stakeholder, demographic, geographic) are most prevalent or difficult for you to span.
2. Clarify the strategy.
Do you need to create safety and foster respect? Then your strategy is to manage boundaries through buffering and reflecting. Is your goal to build trust and develop ownership? Turn to the connecting and mobilizing tactics that help forge common ground. If the foundation has been set, then greater interdependence and reinvention — discovering new frontiers — is possible. Explore the weaving and transforming tactics.
3. Start simply.
Begin with a tactic or two that feels easy to introduce and execute. Don’t “launch” a boundary-spanning campaign. Begin where you can, find some allies, tap into the power of networks, and build on your successes.
4. Experiment and modify.
Remember that a particular boundary spanning tactic may not always work with your group or situation. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Modify our suggestions or make up your own tactics.
How to Put Boundary Spanning Leadership Into Practice
In our work with clients, we recommend a range of tactics to jump-start boundary spanning a process, or to crack open a specific challenge where effective boundary spanning is imperative.
One of our favorites is the Walk-and-Talk, a surprisingly simple way to connect with others. We recommend that people from different groups pair up for a 15-20 minute walk and ask each other 4 questions:
- What brought you to your profession (or to this job or to your company)?
- What do you enjoy most about your work?
- What do you wish you were doing more of?
- How do you like to spend your time when you aren’t working?
The first question often unlocks a passion and commitment that people have for their work. It’s part of their personal story. It usually engages both people, leading to a comfortable conversation around the other questions.
This is an activity that can readily be built into a normal working day, workshop, or training session, or when new people are brought together to resolve a shared challenge or create something new.
Benefits of Expanding and Spanning Boundaries
Leaders who effectively practice boundary spanning have the advantage when faced with solving problems, creating innovative solutions, and evolving to thrive in today’s interdependent, complex world. The benefits of boundary spanning leadership include:
- Increased organizational agility to respond to a dynamic marketplace;
- Advanced cross-organizational innovation processes;
- Achievement of mission-critical, bottom-line results;
- An engaged and empowered workplace at all levels;
- Flexible, cross-functional learning capabilities to solve problems and adapt to change;
- Better-managed risks and rewards through enduring cross-sector partnerships;
- Higher-performing virtual teams; and
- Global mindsets and cross-regional collaboration.
Ready to Take the Next Step?
Upskill your people’s ability to span boundaries with a customized learning journey for your leaders using our research-backed modules. Available leadership topics include Boundary Spanning, Collaboration & Teamwork, Leading Remote & Virtual Teams, and more.