Breaking Boundaries

Our world is more interconnected than ever before, but what sorts of boundaries still keeps an organization divided within, thereby undercutting its chances for success?

A piece in the latest issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review—based on 2,800 survey responses and hundreds of in-depth interviews with executives across the globe—identifies five types of boundaries that continue to get in the way.

These include vertical boundaries, which “separate groups according to rank and privilege”; horizontal boundaries, or “the walls that separate groups according to areas of experience and expertise”; and stakeholder boundaries, which “have potential to create divides when organizations seek to serve their individual interests at the exclusion or expense of the interests of their internal partners.” Then there are “demographic boundaries,” which result “when workers are defined according to classifiers such as gender, race, education or ideology.” And, finally, there are geographic boundaries, which can get complicated as companies try to figure out which processes to integrate across physical distances and which “to customize for local needs.”

[EXPAND More]Each of these boundaries, write Chris Ernst and Donna Chrobot-Mason, “invite conflict, impose limitations on performance and stifle innovation.”

But what really caught our eye were the authors’ proposed solutions—or “boundary spanning practices,” as they put it. Among the six that they recommend are “mobilizing,” which “seeks to reframe boundaries and craft common purpose.” This practice, they add, “encourages groups to transcend their smaller group identity and create a new and larger identity that is shared by all.”

In addition, there is “weaving.” This occurs “when group boundaries interlace yet remain distinct, much like an accomplished weaver bringing together different threads to create larger patterns. In an organization, each group has a unique role or contribution that is integrated in the pursuit, say, of the next big product or service.”

To us, such language is all very reminiscent of Peter Drucker’s concept of Management by Objectives (MBO), which has gotten a black eye in some quarters over the years, but when properly practiced has proven to be very powerful. MBO is based on the idea that managers and their teams, at every level of the organization, should be given both autonomy and responsibility for achieving results. To get there, all employees need to understand the overarching goals of the entire enterprise. They need to see how their work fits into the larger picture. And they need to receive timely information so that they can perform most effectively.

“Any business enterprise must build a true team and weld individual efforts into a common effort,” Drucker wrote in his 1954 landmark, The Practice of Management. “Each member of the enterprise contributes something different, but they must all contribute toward a common goal. Their efforts must all pull in the same direction, and their contributions must fit together to produce a whole—without gaps, without friction, without unnecessary duplication of effort.”

What kind of barriers exist in your organization, and how are you trying to span them?[/EXPAND]


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