“There are no NEW ideas…only OLD ideas captured fresh, for the first time.”
This Zen-intense proverb touched down in my cranium as I finished the fourth chapter of Chris and Donna’s book. Is this New? Is this Old? Has Boundary Spanning always been with us and we simply didn’t recognize it?
History is replete with Great Ideas—and their advocates– that found their moment-in-time. “Discovered” so to speak…or carved from the bric-a-brac and background noise:
Brought into being to shine in a time when their presence could bring clarity to all that we aspire to…Like lighthouses on foggy nights on craggy shores that keep us safe or lead us home, Great Ideas—and the heroes that embody them—help us to find a path that we might have missed or wouldn’t have seen.
And so it is, I think, with the Heroes and Heroines of Boundary Spanning, past and present…
There are so many, and then a few, that stand out in one’s mind, once you realize the pervasive power of this “construct” that has been with us through the ages, now made lucid and germane through Chris and Donna’s writing.
I think of Nelson Mandela who epitomizes, in our past century, the ending of apartheid—the ultimate act of boundary spanning between black and white…between the world of institutional, inculcated segregation and a universe where differences can co-exist, side-by-side.
Was Nelson thinking, all those years in prison: Did he dream to be the bridge between peoples and the catalyst to common ground?
Did he know that he was laying the groundwork in those years for a hundred-thousand acts of boundary spanning which would eventuate in the revolution of a social order?
Or consider Margaret Thatcher, England’s premier stateswoman and prime minister: When she reached across the waters to build connections with America and with Asia, when she broke through the traditional lines between “upper crust” and “working poor” in Britain’s society, was she not a prototypical boundary spanner?
Or consider our modern corporate heroes and icons of industry: It’s said that the greatest days of Conrad Hilton, one of America’s leading hoteliers, started when he began to leave his headquarters, on a regular basis, and spend time with the housecleaners, maids and clerks who staffed the first Hilton hotels in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
Conrad’s discovery? That the artificial barriers that exist between the executive suite and the front lines of the work force could be torn down by one man stepping out of his opulent office, and into the dirt-beneath-your-nails world of his employees.
“Management by Walking Around,” accomplished regularly is simply one expression of boundary-spanning, one early exercise in silo-busting, person-bridging activity.
And then there’s Dave Packard, co-founder of global tech giant, Hewlett-Packard (HP). The “HP Way”, as it came to be called, was a culture in which Packard and his colleagues eschewed traditional management delineators and safeguards: Employees were trusted with open access to company supplies, equipment and data. Managers were encouraged to work “elbow to elbow” with their subordinates. On any particular day, Dave Packard could be seen jiggling an oscilloscope dial with a line engineer in the open work area where executives and engineers co-mingled their lives in the pursuit of innovation.
Only a decade or two later, Andy Grove, CEO of Intel, at the peak of his career, chose a simple module set amongst his engineers, as his primary work space, once again promoting the concept that “no barrier is a good barrier” when it comes to individuals in an organization who must connect to energize and achieve.
Of course, Boundary Spanning, as Chris and Donna describe it, must be more than just symbolic (e.g. sitting in my module next to yours). And true boundary spanning sometimes requires maintaining a fence, even as one travels back and forth across it.
But the true heroes and heroines of history, seen through the lens of boundary spanning, have always been those, whether in government, business or corporate life who see the value in connecting across compartments, unifying across turf and time zones, communicating between management layers, and across discrete functions and working groups in the organization.
They are the ones who, throughout our human history, see through the complex myriad of ways individuals align, define, and periodically misconstrue each other by the mere fact of living out their lives (work and play) in different contexts of interaction, unable to see into or empathize with the other’s condition or situation.
In some instances, these heroes and heroines of history have become ambassadors, liaisons, and envoys between worlds of understanding (think Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, Madeleine Albrecht).
In other instances, these heroes and heroines have laid down their lives that boundaries can be crossed between heaven and hell, upper caste and lower caste, well-off and destitute (think Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa).
And whether the fences are high and ramifications are severe, or the compartments are nuanced and the consequences less apparent, Boundary Spanners know—they know implicitly, intuitively, relationally (and in some instances, morally) — that a wall must be scaled, a doorway paved through, a bridge way built, or a connection forged in order that ideas and energy, sanity and synergy, communication and collaboration can occur on behalf of and between all who inhabit their respective and valued universes.
This is the mission and calling of all Boundary Spanning heroes—their destiny and finest hour.