Spanning Boundaries Effectively Is Essential for Leaders
As our world becomes more complex and interconnected, executives must transform from managers who protect their boundaries to leaders who practice spanning boundaries. The leadership advantage goes to people who are able to work with a variety of colleagues from differing positions, backgrounds, locations, and experiences.
The Benefits of Spanning Boundaries
Leaders who effectively practice boundary spanning have the advantage when faced with solving problems, creating innovative solutions, and evolving to thrive in today’s interdependent, complex world. The benefits of spanning boundaries include:
- Increased organizational agility to respond to a dynamic marketplace;
- Advanced cross-organizational innovation;
- Achievement of mission-critical, bottom-line results;
- An engaged and empowered workplace at all levels;
- Flexible, cross-functional learning capabilities to solve problems and adapt to change;
- Better-managed risks and rewards through enduring cross-sector partnerships;
- Higher-performing virtual, remote, and hybrid teams; and
- Global mindsets and cross-regional collaboration.
We have conducted extensive research into spanning boundaries, including surveying over 125 senior executives who participated in our Leadership at the Peak program for C-suite leaders .
Over 86% of these top leaders stated that it is “extremely important” to collaborate effectively across boundaries in their current leadership roles. However, only 7% of those executives reported feeling “very effective” at spanning boundaries — a gap of 79 percentage points. Clearly, this is an important skillset that most of us don’t have.
Leaders can close this gap by developing the collaborative skills, mindsets, and behaviors of Boundary Spanning Leadership .
Collaborating Across Boundaries of All Types Requires Leadership
The 5 Universal Types of Boundaries
Based on our research with leaders around the world, we can state with confidence that these 5 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. As outlined in our research study , the 5 types of boundaries that leaders need to be able to span:
- Horizontal: between functions of the organization (expertise, departments, peers)
- Vertical: between hierarchical levels of the organization (rank, class, seniority, authority, power)
- Stakeholder: with external groups (customers, partners, constituencies, value chain, communities)
- Demographic: with diverse groups (gender, generation, nationality, culture, personality, ideology)
- Geographic: across localities (regions, markets, distances)
The Challenges of Spanning the 5 Types of Boundaries
Horizontal boundaries separate organizational groups by areas of experience and expertise. The negative costs of horizontal organizational boundaries are revealed when one function is favored over another, when the work of one unit or product line threatens the viability of another, or when departments or functions work at cross-purposes.
- Frequency: Perhaps not surprisingly, our research with senior executives found that the challenges arising from spanning horizontal boundaries were cited as a concern nearly 3-to-1 (71%) over those of the other 4 dimensions. Facilitating cross-functional collaboration is one of the most common issues leaders face today, and speaks directly to the challenge of spanning boundaries.
The unintended consequence of the many matrixed and regional structures at most modern organizations is that walls have been erected between groups that need to be collaborating. As a result, “silo-busting” has become one of the leading pastimes for managers and executives. Facilitating lateral, cross-functional collaboration is the most common presenting issue that clients bring to the experts in our Organizational Leadership practice .
Vertical boundaries cross level, rank, seniority, authority, and power. The separation of groups into organizational hierarchy layers of top, middle, and entry-level — each with corresponding levels of authority — is a ubiquitous feature in nearly all organizations.
- Frequency: Vertical boundaries, in contrast to horizontal ones, were the least frequently cited challenge or dimension of spanning boundaries in our research.
In the past, we expect this percentage would have been significantly higher, as fingers are often pointed at “the hierarchy” as the root cause for any number of organizational ills. Yet, perhaps as a result of decades of flattening organizations and improved communication systems, executives in our study perceived vertical boundaries as less relevant or problematic than the other 4 types of boundaries.
Spanning boundaries with organizational stakeholders can be complex and varied. Your organization may have many stakeholder groups, including clients or customers, shareholders, boards of directors, partners, alliances, suppliers, vendors, advocacy groups, governmental or non-governmental agencies, plus local, regional, national, and global communities.
Demographic boundaries are found in the space between diverse groups. Demographic boundaries include the entire range of human diversity and social identity , from gender and race to education and ideology. To be effective, leaders must be capable of spanning boundaries and showing respect across a wide variety of demographic boundaries, and understand how their own social identity may affect how they lead .
Geographic boundaries are represented by distance, locations, cultures, regions, and markets. Boundaries of geography create constraints when there is a need for collaboration across different locations. In today’s ever-shrinking world, managers must keep implications for global leadership in mind at all times.
- Frequency: In our research, geographic, demographic, and stakeholder boundaries were each identified as boundary spanning challenges with relatively similar frequency (at 26%, 17%, and 17% respectively), and these percentages will likely continue to increase in the future.
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.
How to Put Spanning Boundaries Into Practice: A Guide for Leaders
Though it can be a challenge to collaborate and navigate across boundaries, the solutions to today’s most pressing business challenges often rest at the intersection of multiple boundaries. That’s why truly effective leadership involves creating direction, alignment, and commitment across key boundaries.
For most of us, it’s not easy to lead outside our box in the org chart, across the lines of stakeholder interests or demographic differences, or beyond the borders of the division or group we represent.
Nevertheless, spanning boundaries can be done.
As outlined in another white paper , through our research and experience in fostering more interdependent forms of leadership, we’ve found that leaders, groups, and organizations that effectively span boundaries do so in 3 ways. They:
- Manage boundaries. The first step to spanning boundaries, ironically, is to create or strengthen them by differentiating and clarifying roles, purpose, areas of specialization, etc. in order to build psychological safety and respect.
- Forge common ground , bringing groups together to achieve a larger purpose and build trust, engagement, and shared ownership across boundaries.
- Discover new frontiers where groups intersect and link with differentiated expertise, experience, and resources but an integrated vision and strategy — in order to support breakthrough innovation, transformation, and reinvention.
Using the 6 practices for spanning boundaries — buffering, reflecting, connecting, mobilizing, weaving, and transforming — leaders can solve problems, create innovative solutions, and transform their organizations. (Learn more about these 6 practices in the white paper noted above or, for a deeper dive, explore our book, Boundary Spanning Leadership: Six Practices for Solving Problems, Driving Innovation, and Transforming Organizations
4 Steps to Start Spanning Boundaries
As you embark on collaborating across boundaries with more intention, follow these steps to identify the best tactics to use in spanning boundaries.
1. Start with the end in mind.
Consider the nature of your challenge and which boundaries (horizontal, vertical, stakeholder, demographic, geographic) are most prevalent or difficult for you to span.
2. Clarify the strategy.
Do you need to create safety and foster respect? Then your strategy is to manage boundaries through buffering and reflecting . Is your goal to build trust and develop ownership? Turn to the connecting and mobilizing tactics that help forge common ground. If the foundation has been set, then greater interdependence and reinvention — discovering new frontiers — is possible. Explore the weaving and transforming tactics.
3. Start simply.
Begin with a tactic or two that feels easy to introduce and execute. Don’t “launch” a boundary-spanning campaign. Begin where you can, find some allies, tap into the power of networks, and build on your successes.
4. Experiment and modify.
Remember that a particular boundary spanning tactic may not always work with your group or situation. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Modify our suggestions or make up your own tactics.
2 Practices to Try for Spanning Boundaries
In our work with clients, we recommend a range of tactics to jump-start boundary spanning a process, or to crack open a specific challenge where spanning boundaries effectively is imperative for success. Here are 2 of our favorite tactics to try.
The Walk & Talk
The “Walk-and-Talk” is a surprisingly simple way of connecting with others in an in-person setting. We recommend that people from different groups pair up for a brief 15–20 minute walk together, where they ask each other 4 questions:
- What brought you to your profession (or to this job or to your company)?
- What do you enjoy most about your work?
- What do you wish you were doing more of?
- How do you like to spend your time when you aren’t working?
The first question often unlocks a passion and commitment that people have for their work. It’s part of their personal story. It usually engages both people, leading to a comfortable conversation around the other questions. This activity for spanning boundaries can be readily built into a face-to-face team meeting, workshop, or training session, or whenever new people come together to resolve a shared challenge or create something new.
Map the Challenge
This weaving activity of “shared affinity mapping” allows group members to clearly see facets of a challenge or situation; reveal areas of overlap, connection and concern; and begin to create shared ownership of solutions. To try it, divide a larger group into smaller groups, asking each to brainstorm a list of issues or factors related to the project or challenge. Include the question, What obstacles might get in our way of success?
The groups then post their discussion for all to see, with each member using one particular color to mark the top 3 issues that they believe must be addressed. By using a dedicated color to capture the votes from each collaborator, participants can begin to see visually how their ideas overlap, cluster or blend, including both differentiation (the colors themselves) and integration and overlap (the patterns).
You can then facilitate a discussion around key themes and use insights to begin prioritizing, problem-solving, and planning. This is a great activity for spanning boundaries if a group is gathered in person in a room — as posting issues and voting can be done on boards, walls, or flip charts — but the process works equally well in virtual settings, either in real time or asynchronously.
Closing Thoughts on Collaborating Across Boundaries
In this article, we’ve outlined a number of ideas to help you put boundary spanning into action. The behaviors, skills, mindsets, and practices of spanning boundaries are best learned and applied within the course of everyday work and activities, so draw on these tactics for in-person or virtual meetings, off-sites, teleconferences, strategic planning sessions, and more — anytime you find boundaries emerge.
Effective leaders find ways to generate change, co-create innovative solutions, and contribute to their organizations and communities by spanning boundaries every day.
Ready to Take the Next Step?
Upskill your people’s skill at spanning boundaries with a customized learning journey for your leaders using our research-backed modules. Available leadership topics include Beyond Bias,™ Boundary Spanning Leadership , Collaboration & Teamwork, Leading Remote & Virtual Teams, Psychological Safety & Trust, and more.