Boundary Spanning in Practice
Unfettered: Mission-Aligned Boundary Spanning

by Kitty Wooley et al. (interview)

Senior Fellows and Friends is a group of current and former U.S. government employees. Spearheaded by Kitty Wooley, members of the group have published two compilations of articles about breaking through the silo mentality. They encourage inter-agency collaboration throughout the hierarchy to achieve greater institutional learning, more motivated staff, and greater effectiveness in executing organizational missions. While their context is government, the topics also apply to large businesses and nonprofit organizations.

The first volume, titled Boundary Spanning in Practice, was published in 2017.

Kriste Jordan Smith writes, “Isolation is a pathogen. The stagnant air in an organizational stovepipe slowly kills the great ideas, the passion, and the quest to do something for the greater good. When a leader exposes people to the bigger picture through boundary spanning, new options and inspired potential open up in ways that no other intervention can provide.”

“Today’s challenges demand this broader point of view. Wicked problems, complexity, inter-dependency, historical traditions, technological advances, and global implications all characterize modern public service. A silo is not sharp enough to cut through issues that matter. Boundary spanning is the ultimate leadership competency for inducing excellence by replacing old beliefs with a new sense of possibilities and mutual success.”

Adrian Wolfberg writes, “In 2006, I started a unique program within the federal government called ‘Crossing Boundaries’ at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)… Crossing Boundaries encouraged and required interpersonal communication such as collaboration across organizational silos, networking, team-building, and creativity on the part of employees who participated… The reason Crossing Boundaries was like a knowledge marketplace was because those solutions that developed a demand and consensus across boundaries survived.”

“The idea behind the creation of Crossing Boundaries was motivated by personal observations made by the then incoming director of DIA, Lieutenant General (LTG) Michael D. Maples, United States Army.” A former DIA employee said, “LTG Maples believed that making DIA better was part of every employee’s job description, not just senior leaders, or people working explicitly designated change initiatives. The General’s vision was not just to empower change, but to make employees the stakeholders and implementers of that change.”

“Boundaries can be structural or conceptual… There are many structural types of organizational boundaries: vertical, horizontal, external, and geographic, to name a few… Conceptual boundaries can be created for specific purposes, [such as] to create or maintain efficiency, power, competence, and identity.”

“The relationship between structural and conceptual boundaries is bi-directional: structural boundaries can serve as the basis for conceptual boundaries to emerge, maintain, and strengthen over time, but it also works the other way, emerging or differential conceptual boundaries can be used as the basis for making changes to the organization using structural boundaries.”

“The importance of providing psychological safety to those involved with change cannot be overstated. Leaders and managers must demonstrate by their actions—not merely their words—that employee risk-taking is supported, that their thoughts and actions are accepted and encouraged.”

“Boundary crossing also needs employees and managers—those making the journey from one side of a boundary to another—to have the ability to see both sides of the boundary… It is important because reaching a consensus on a solution that draws on the participation of a number of organizational entities requires a common understanding.”

“Leaders and senior managers have the vantage point of seeing across boundaries… Leaders and managers must help those subordinate to them to understand the perspectives of others and their reasons why. Such an understanding may not come risk-free but it is essential for those without authority to navigate successfully amidst the uncertainty and ambiguity of development and change efforts.”

“The kinds of general competencies commonly found in boundary spanners include the ability to build sustainable relationships, manage power and authority differences through influence and negotiations, manage complexity and interdependencies, and manage divergent roles, different measures of accountabilities, and conflicting motivations. A boundary spanner may not have to occupy much time during any one episodic contact in the middle of a boundary since their role is more of a hand-off between people on each side of a boundary. Boundary spanners transfer knowledge; they translate information between different interpretation systems.”

“Boundary architects grow the connections between organizations”

“Boundary practices are routine activities, procedures, or processes that are used bring people together but without the need for having common ground and a shared identity in place. Such practices facilitate the creation of a new boundary space showing that legitimacy and integrity can exist between disparate identities… Boundary practices have to be integrated into change and collaboration plans. They have to make sense and be meaningful to the organizational members involved.”

Kitty Wooley writes about the “link between excessive control and employee departure or disengagement. As Adrian Wolfberg points out… ‘Organizations with few levels, perhaps one level or two that might be called a flat organization are not constrained nearly as much in terms of information flow and hindrances to interaction. Managers should be aware that if they are members of organizations more highly constrained, the characteristics of hierarchy are more likely to strengthen boundaries, make them closed or impermeable, and solidify the culture and identities within boundaries. Impermeable boundaries thwart change, developmental and collaboration efforts.’”

“The overemphasis on control is brittle and non-adaptive… Boundary spanning initiated by self-identified emergent leaders, i.e., not orchestrated by top leaders, [can] interrupt the progression of this fatal disease.”

“Whatever your span of control, in order to maximize your public service contribution in the future, you will need to develop the ability to span boundaries with ease. Push yourself outside your comfort zone, without waiting to be told, and practice. That expands your comfort zone and equips you to do more, in more settings. That makes you more valuable to your organization and improves your career prospects. That attracts new opportunities to serve in meaningful ways. It is a virtuous cycle.”

The second volume, titled Unfettered: Mission-Aligned Boundary Spanning, was published in 2019.

Kitty Wooley writes, “For organizations to realize the true benefits of cross-boundary cooperation and collaboration, boundary spanning behavior has to be allowed and enabled at all levels.”

“Managers who wanted to accelerate employee development could partner on the implementation of ‘guardrails’ that would make space for novice boundary spanning and self-directed growth, while giving the organization a way to manage the risks associated with it…  More seasoned employees could hone the ability to contribute to better outcomes by reaching across component, agency, or even sector boundaries, while remaining firmly aligned with agency objectives. Dave Gray, in The Connected Company, expresses this as moving from the ‘thou shalt’ of micromanagement to the ‘thou shalt not’ of freedom within boundaries.”

“The leader who depends on coercion and the employee who habitually paints him- or herself as powerless are locked in a dance that is mutually reinforcing and unproductive… Leadership that seeks out and leverages employee strengths and frees people up to do their best work promotes an agile culture and superior results… It’s a both/and world. Stability and change exist together. Old and new behavior must exist together. Only fools throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

Lara Plaxton writes, “The more traditional approaches of hierarchical design and management for control and direction are no longer fit-for-purpose if we want to cultivate an environment that encourages innovation, creativity and collaboration. This paradigm shift is required if companies want to remain relevant; both in the products and services they provide and in the people they serve.”

“The rigidity of hierarchical organizational structure, as well as a management style that focuses on control and direction, inhibits the mindset required to enable effective digital transformation. At its core, it requires cross-collaboration over hierarchical boundaries, multi-disciplinary project teams, freedom for employees to be more autonomous and to trial new ideas without fear of failure, an inclusive workplace that attracts diverse talent to ensure diversity of thought and a multi-faceted approach that allows information to flow top-down, bottom-up as well as laterally across functions. Whilst this more fluid or agile style of operating can sound chaotic; it is not without structure if approached effectively.”

“A key way to instigate change to your own work is to enable a sub-culture to develop which may not sit within the boundary of a team or department, but across those boundaries where like-minded people can approach work in a new way.”

“The power of building networks either internally within the organization or externally with people who are already working with a transformative mindset can help bring a new level of satisfaction to the work you do. It helps build confidence and credibility to find people who support you, encourage you and challenge you in a positive way. It’s important to do this transparently so people can see the value it brings to you, the work you do and those you interact with.”

“For work to be meaningful and satisfying, it’s important to have a strong level of self-awareness so you can understand what motivates you and what areas of work you are most passionate about. It could be new areas of knowledge or skills that you want to explore further or areas that you already have a good level of experience in and you want to develop further.”

“The future of work is likely to be less about job titles and roles, and more about the skills and knowledge a company can harness and then align to work that needs to be done in order to meet an organization’s true value. People will have the ability to work in a more self-managed, autonomous way so that they can see their contribution to delivering better experiences. This can only be done if mindsets start to shift, if we are agile enough to redesign the work we do, if we are focused on true value and we seek to continually learn and improve so we can iterate for success.”

Mark Dronfield writes, “This type of mindset is often considered somewhat counter-cultural in the federal government. When I first started federal service many years ago, it was a commonly held principle that if someone demonstrated they had a weakness in a particular area, they were given lots of training to help them get better at it and then held accountable to performing that activity up to everyone’s standard.”

“I’ve come to believe that that is backwards from the way we should be approaching the issue: I want to find out where someone’s passion and [talent] lies and do what I can to help make them the best they can be at that, and find a second person who has a passion for the things the first one isn’t gifted in, and move that work to the second person. It’s a ‘win’ all around if we consistently put our best people on appropriate tasks that energize them, grow their self-confidence and provide superior work products, but it’s a losing proposition when I hold someone accountable to gaining proficiency in something they aren’t wired to understand or succeed in. It will discourage them, lower their view of their capabilities and potential, and give us a sub-par product in the bargain.”

Dronfield’s perspective is consistent with Peter Drucker: “The effective executive makes strength productive. He knows that one cannot build on weakness.”

“We once had an intern from a Midwestern university who, during his interview, asked “If I bring you a good idea, will you let me work on it?” We responded “No… we’ll let you run it.” As it turned out, he did have an idea for an approach we hadn’t thought to pursue and he did run with it (with a little coaching from the team). His solution and approach are still in use today.”

“Let’s be honest – it takes courage and commitment to innovate. Know going in that you will make mistakes and you’ll need to be able to articulate what you’ve learned from your mistakes or failed efforts and provide metrics or testimonials on successes you’ve had”

“Giving folks the freedom to work ‘within the guardrails’—ensuring they understand what they’re trying to do and why—will lead them to understanding they own the work, that they’re the ones making decisions and doing the planning… They need to know it’s easier for them to pick up an acorn than chop down an oak tree – when problems arise, address them immediately and honestly, and keep the focus on working the problem, not letting things become personal. It’s essential to coach or facilitate their navigating this process, and to have created beforehand a culture of mutual appreciation of what each person brings to the table.”

Carol Willett writes, “Not only are two heads better than one, but two skill sets, two different perspectives, two differing constituencies and different cultures increase the probability that others may offer that elusive something that helps you around your own roadblocks… So why are we so hesitant to reach outside our organizational boundaries to talk to other people? My experience suggests that the big reason is fear.”

“When you’ve never done a thing before, it’s scary… Every new relationship takes us back to ground zero in terms of trust, confidence and commitment.”

“There is too much to be gained and too much necessity for us to become master collaborators for our fears to get the better of us. For every relationship we learn to establish, nurture, promote and strengthen, we multiply our ability to make a positive difference both in our organization, and in the larger world we inhabit. It is only when we stand together that we increase the odds of our mutual success.”

Kriste Jordan Smith writes, “Public service takes place within a network of systems… Boundary spanning adds clarity to the relationships between systems, and nudges improvement into sustainable existence.”

Kitty Wooley, Adrian Wolfberg, Kriste Jordan Smith, Diane Blumenthal, Valerie Quarles (cover). Boundary Spanning in Practice. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Senior Fellows and Friends, 2017. 64-page PDF can be downloaded for free.

Kitty Wooley, Mark Dronfield, Chris Harrington, Lara Plaxton, John Sporing, Alex Tremble, Carol Willett, Valerie Quarles (cover), Barbara Maroney (scenario animations). Unfettered: Mission-Focused Boundary Spanning. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Senior Fellows and Friends, 2019. 45-page PDF can be downloaded for free.

Other books cited in the above documents:

  • Boundary Spanning Leadership: Six Practices for Solving Problems, Driving Innovation, and Transforming Organizations by Chris Ernst and Donna Chrobot-Mason (2010)
  • The Connected Company (2014) by Dave Gray 978-1491919477
  • Context, Context, Context: How Our Blindness to Context Cripples Even the Smartest Organizations by Barry Oshry (2018)
  • Drive by Daniel Pink (2011)
  • The GPS Guide to Success: How to Navigate Life to Reach Your Personal and Career Goals by Alex D. Tremble (2014)
  • Reaching Senior Leadership: 10 Growth Strategies Every Government Leader Should Know by Alex D. Tremble (2019)
  • Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within by Lois Kelly and Carmen Medina (2014)
  • Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Tantum Collins, David Silverman, Chris Fussell (2015).

Another book that deals with vertical alignment and horizontal or diagonal collaboration is The Art of Being Indispensable at Work by Bruce Tulgan (2020).

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