Today we are all challenged to collaborate, reach across, and navigate five types of boundaries. These include spanning vertical boundaries between hierarchical levels of the organization; horizontal boundaries between functions; stakeholder boundaries with customers, suppliers, and other external groups; demographic boundaries in working with people from diverse groups; and geographic boundaries of distance and region.

Based on our research with leaders around the world, we can state with confidence that these five 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. But that’s not to say that all five types occur in organizations in the same way or with similar frequency. Based on our analysis, here are three conclusions we’ve drawn for leading across boundaries in today’s shifting landscape:

  1. Horizontal boundaries were identified nearly three to one over the other four dimensions. Bet this finding doesn’t surprise you. Facilitating lateral, cross-functional collaboration is the most common presenting issue that clients bring to CCL in our organizational leadership work.  The unintended consequence of today’s matrixed and regional structures is that walls have been erected between groups that need to be collaborating together.  “Silo busting” has become one of the leading pastimes for managers and executives today.
  2. Vertical boundaries, in contrast, were the least 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 de-layering and improved communication systems, executives perceive vertical boundaries as less relevant than the other four types.
  3. Geographic, demographic, and stakeholder boundaries were identified with relatively similar frequency. In contrast to vertical boundaries, our expectation is that these percentages will dramatically rise in the years ahead. 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.

Look around you. How do the five types of boundaries play out in your work and life? Where do they create borders and constraints? Where might they present new sources of creativity, innovation and opportunity? What boundaries will you span today? Post a comment and let us know what you think.

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