Networks: How to cross boundaries

It’s likely that you, just like pretty much all of us, have a story of working on a time intensive initiative only to learn that it was already done by another division or group long ago. That “D’oh” moment could have been avoided if someone from your group consulted with other people across divisions. There is no shortage of boundaries in organizational life. Think function, expertise, level, geography, demographics, and sectors. Conversations with others across one or more of those divides would likely have brought to light what the people in your silo didn’t know. What’s more, research tells us what my own experience working with leaders in multiple industries over the length of a career has borne out. That a great majority of leaders at every level recognize that it’s critical to manage across groups and teams, although very few view themselves as effective in this way. Managing across means generating commitment for direction and securing alignment across relevant boundaries. There are also other reasons to promote connectivity with individuals across in and outside of your organization. Insular networks can miss innovation opportunities. They lose out on fresh ideas and the detection of early signs of trends, and risk overextending into areas where they know little. Closed groups are also deaf to how they are perceived by others. So it begs the question – since we stand to gain when boundaries are crossed, what’s in the way of bridging across divisions?

On being closed.

First we need to recognize that there are, not surprisingly, reasons for closed groups. Individuals enjoy high trust where they converge about their interests and shared views. In the walled gardens I know, engagement among members is high and the safety among them enables people to speak plainly with one another and push to realize greater outcomes. Specialization too plays a role in keeping closed networks persistent. There are many sectors that have a history of isolated clusters shaped by professional specialization. Each area has its own jargon, customs and behaviours, developing under its own historic forces. Many individuals work very hard to overcome the challenges that surface in interprofessional work. And then there are the challenges that organizational structures present that keep closed groups intact, not least of which is the hierarchical design where the traditional focus is to manage up and down, with less attention from leaders to manage across.

So what can you do?

Here are a few strategies for you to consider to span boundaries that address a gap.

Face your own competency traps.

Herminia Ibarra, professor of Leadership and Learning at INSEAD, calls competency traps those things we enjoy doing because we are so good at them, but that keep us from learning new things because we perceive it as too costly. We have a choice of either resisting or selecting to move from the fast well-trodden lane of competence to the slower learning lane where we have more room to grow. Staying comfortable with the people we know and trust won’t bring us differentiated strategic solutions or the benefits of unity that coordination can bring, only moving between lanes will.

Examine your group from the inside and out.

As a group member, look at it from the outside in and ask if your group’s defined boundaries of work responsibilities are clear to others outside making it easy to be invited to be consulted or collaborate? Further, are there ways in which your group can make learning about other groups routine? Viewing your own groups in this way may reveal opportunities for greater group definition and differentiation that make connecting across divisions far more attractive and easy.

Look further beyond your operational network.            

Organizational players pay attention to getting the job done. Heads down and sleeves up, they are busy managing daily pressures. Without a mindset to carve out time to build relationships with others beyond the day to day operations, leaders miss out on peripheral informational flow and the insights of emerging trends that are available from a broader network. It’s not possible to create a viable strategic plan that looks out to the future without drawing information from social connections outside the organization.

Take action and find common ground.

If you are looking to cross any of the divisions of functional lines, expertise, level, geography or whatever the boundary, first identify the decision makers, key opinion leaders and those in the periphery that might have been hidden from your view. Get curious. Introduce yourself. Offer to meet. Forge a common ground by which to begin to build your relationship. Value from those with a different area of specialization or a different industry or sector can come fast or it may arrive more slowly needing your patience.

In either case, the role of the boundary spanner is critical and is valued by organizations. Linking across boundaries is the start of informative exchanges that will build trust and dividends over time. It’s useful too for your own learning, for decision-making, and for personal growth to get support from people not directly involved in your work. It’s a good idea to start by defining your network goals and setting a plan to broaden your social network before you think you need to because like many things in life, its value grows over time when you give it attention.

Would you like to get the Give & Get Blog straight in your inbox?

Subscribe to receive a monthly email for inspiration, insights and tools.