What’s the No. 1 reason why leaders care about developing greater boundary spanning capabilities across their organization? CCL research shows that the runaway, top-of-mind answer is “the drive for innovation.”

A recent IBM study of more than 700 global chief human resource officers revealed a similar message. In the paper Working Beyond Borders, IBM reports that driving corporate growth and innovation in the future means “engaging much more seamlessly across a wide range of geographic, functional and generational boundaries and borders.”

Unfortunately, the boundary spanning aspirations in most organizations are not living up to reality. Our research at CCL shows that 86 percent of senior leaders say that working across boundaries inside and outside their companies is extremely important. Just 7 percent, however, believe they are very effective at it.

That’s a huge gap — but the story doesn’t end there.

CCL research also suggests that the pressure to span boundaries may be greatest on middle managers shifting to senior-level jobs.

Boundary spanning is important for middle managers, according to 91 percent of senior executives surveyed. But only 19 percent of middle managers were seen as effective in working across boundaries — a gap of 72 percent between perceived importance and effectiveness of boundary spanning capability.

“The ability to shift from a bounded, within-group mindset to one that skillfully bridges vertical, horizontal, stakeholder, demographic and geographic boundaries is a key challenge for leaders and organizations as a whole,” says CCL’s Chris Ernst, co-author of the new book, Boundary Spanning Leadership: Six Practices for Solving Problems, Driving Innovation, and Transforming Organizations. “Leaders recognize that innovation, by its very nature, requires intense and sustained collaboration across wide-ranging boundaries.”

The IBM study found that working beyond borders requires organizations to do three things:

Cultivate creative leaders. The IBM report says leaders need to develop “a flair for thinking about opportunities and challenges in completely different ways” while leveraging the talents of “an increasingly dispersed and diverse employee base.” CCL’s Ernst agrees: “The intersection where boundaries collide, cross and link is the source of new ideas and where creative solutions emerge.”

Mobilize for greater speed and flexibility. “The leadership advantage increasingly goes to organizations that can quickly integrate far-flung people and resources to capture emerging opportunities,” says Ernst. The IBM report notes that this requires simplified processes; fast, adaptive workforce solutions; a responsive human capital supply chain; and the ability to fluidly allocate resources.

Capitalize on collective intelligence. According to the IBM report, “Tapping into a broad base of institutional knowledge is critical to developing and maintaining an innovative culture. Enterprises must adapt innovations, apply them across their organization and find new ways to connect people to each other and to information, both internally and externally.”

Innovation comes down to boundary spanning leadership. “The old challenge for leaders involved how to operate effectively within the boxes and lines of traditional organizational charts,” Ernst explains. “The new challenge is how to think and act beyond yesterday’s boundaries to discover innovative new frontiers.”

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