Let’s talk about what it means to work Across Boundaries…. because the reality is that it can mean many things to many people. In my world, working across boundaries is about lateral thinking… really comprehending that you are a single piece of a much larger puzzle and that your piece has a significant impact on the larger whole. It also means having the capacity to move across those boundaries to absorb knowledge from one context or discipline and apply it back into your area of expertise to create a free-flow of information – increasing your knowledge and the potential to “create a better mousetrap”. Think Leonardo DaVinci:
Working across boundaries, more than anything else, means working together to solve problems that cannot be solved ~ or easily solved ~ by a single person, department or business unit. It is critical that you, as a leader, consider (and learn from) the overall system and expect every person across every department to work together to figure out how to improve the overall experience for customers both internally and externally – the rest will naturally follow. The reality (whether you want to acknowledge it or not) is that you are part of a system… a network… an interconnected structure involving many people and multiple linkages. Without each component part of the whole, there is little to offer the customer… or the market.
Despite the necessity of collaboration, organizations are complex – engaging across boundaries can present several challenges. Because Networks are inter-organizational, cross-departmental and interpersonal, different stakeholders across that network have differing:
- Points of view (by default)
- objectives and missions
- micro-cultures and perspectives
- methods of operation – purpose, policies, procedures and systems.
- financial models (i.e. cost centers versus profit centers)
- degrees of power
- decision-making capacities
- Sources of conflict within network and with the customer
Despite the challenges, continually improving organizational performance is what matters and that can only happen with collaboration across both horizontal and vertical boundaries. It is critical for your company to get everyone working together in order to “build that better mousetrap”. We all know how important it is to work effectively across organizational boundaries, however multi-functional, multi-cultural, multi-level teamwork is unnatural. The innate tendency of organizations is to optimize within a business unit or department rather than understanding that every aspect of the company is part of a living system and optimizing for the global customer experience or enterprise acceleration. Too often, the sum of the parts doesn’t create a high-performing whole. Getting people to collaborate and learn from one another across boundaries typically requires a crisis… or aggressive edicts from organizational leadership (which can also backfire if not delivered appropriately).
Suppose for a moment you are the Chief Operations Officer of a multinational company and you want to improve the experience of customers worldwide, while also reducing the cost of overall operations. Who do you need to involve in improving the process?
Product Development creates the product…
Operations produces it…
Sales sells it…
Legal reviews it and creates the contracts…
Implementation Management implements it…
Customer Relations maintains the relationship after the sale…
Finance invoices and tracks financial progress…
BUT the customer will ultimately pay for the product and decide if you are a good partner overall.
In a typical scenario, each department is a separate business with its own objectives, business practices, culture, and information systems. However, without all the component parts coming together to deliver the product or service, there is nothing to offer the market. As a leader facilitating people working effectively across boundaries you need to understand, accommodate and help people understand that:
- Departments and their people have ongoing, critical inter-dependencies that require cross-boundary interactions on a regular basis
- It is natural that every department or business unit will have both common and competing goals – they must find common ground and “third best ways” of operating for organizational and customer benefit
- As part of an integrated workplace, your people work in an elastic environment – groups will expand and contract as needed
- Members need to be both participative and authoritative, depending on the circumstance
- People need to see both the forest and the trees – understanding the system as a whole is critical, but they also must consider the people and components within the system in order to be successful
- They must balance advocacy and inquiry, again depending on circumstance
If your organization truly wants to maximize shareholder value (and be around in another 10 years), continually working across boundaries to improve organizational results and the customer experience is the answer – which will drive competitive advantage, revenue and contract viability.
With the inherent challenges (and opportunities) that come with working across boundaries:
How can you, as a leader, leverage a multi-functional, multi-level, multi-cultural network of people to optimize overall operations… rather than optimizing each business units objectives?
How can you create an environment that embraces the objective of cost reduction, while at the same time “thrilling” the customer?
And how do you do this when changes to the system may create winners and losers – internally and externally?
Leonardo da Vinci once said:
“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.”
He was right. Taking action is critical to enhancing operations and elevating the customer experience. Every single BU has the capacity to see through “new eyes” and gain new perspective by working within the system, as opposed to working only within its own boundaries. Remember – Arms, Wings, Flying Machines… the possibilities are endless!
Please engage the discussion and let us know how you view working across boundaries.
Stay tuned – we will discuss the answers to these questions!
Have questions or need an expert to help you in your global organization? Contact me at SheriLMackey@gmail.com.