What our boundaries say about us

Posted by on Sep 13, 2010 in Culture | 0 comments

In my consulting work, I’ve often found that my fascination with borders comes in handy. I suppose that I’m not alone in my amusement that one can stand literally straddling a boundary, with one foot in one country and the other in another.

I was reminded of this recently on a cross-country drive here in the U.S. In large swaths of the country, crossing a state border seems like a nonevent. We live up to our name as the United States. Other than a sign announcing your arrival in the new state, nothing much changes visibly. The interstate is still the interstate. The topography doesn’t shift dramatically. The vegetation remains the same.

But then there are some borders that represent stark demarcations. Some things suddenly shift. For example, crossing from Kansas into Oklahoma, endless fields of corn suddenly give way to rangeland dotted with cows. But even there, the interstate is still the interstate. The topography and native vegetation don’t change.

I don’t know if the discontinuity is due to differences in cultures, tax laws, land use regulations or what, but the Kansas-Oklahoma border is clearly one that matters. The boundary is obvious and immediately apparent.

But even with the nonevent borders, the more subtle differences between states eventually make themselves known. The types of rest stops and restaurants change. The dress and comportment of patrons and staff at the truck stops shift. The reminders of regional differences gradually emerge from the veneer of national franchise uniformity.

Organizational boundaries are a lot like state borders. When you walk through an unfamiliar office, you may not know whether you’ve just passed from marketing into finance or even software development into networking. The carpet remains the same. The cubicles are identical. The copiers are all of the same vintage and brand.

But in some offices, it’s immediately clear when you’ve left one manager’s domain and passed into another’s. The boundaries are distinct and unmistakable. You can almost imagine border guards standing behind candy-striped barricades asking for passports and demanding bribes before allowing you to pass. “Who goes there? Friend or foe?”

As a consultant, I frequently find that subtle boundary issues become important in diagnosing and resolving performance problems. At the staff level, organizational borders are usually pretty indisputable. Joe reports to Sally in the SAP support team. Adrian reports to Adam in the project management office. But absent the obvious border guards, management teams often don’t really know how they fit together.

When I ask a CIO who should attend the management retreat that we’re planning together, the answer often requires a lot of thought. Even at the retreats, when I ask the participants, “Who are the members of the management team?” a surprisingly long discussion usually reveals many different perspectives on the relationships and boundaries among leadership, management, sponsors, customers, users and vendors. Even the citizens don’t always know what states they live in.

This may seem like a silly semantic question, but it often proves decisive in making sense of dysfunctional interactions between individuals and groups. Misperceptions and disagreements over boundaries are key sources of role confusion. Managers are usually clear about their roles with respect to their subordinates, but they are rarely so clear about responsibilities and relationships looking up and out from their domains.

To operate effectively, management teams need a common understanding of both the location and the meaning of borders.

The location of boundaries provides information about responsibilities and relationships among managers. Useful conceptual models become available once people know where a boundary lies. For example, do we need an ambassador to the networking group? Do we want to establish an embassy outpost by sending someone to live with the finance department? How does that budget money flow?

The meaning of boundaries offers much more subtle but perhaps even more important information about obligations and relationships among managers. For example, are borders fuzzy interfaces between territories that blend into one another, or do we believe that good fences make good neighbors? Managers interact quite differently depending on the meaning of the frontier.

Making sense of the geopolitics of your office can help you develop useful alliances and avoid energy-sapping border disputes. Everyone can be more productive. Then you can focus on growing corn, and your neighbors on herding cows.

For more information about how you can leverage geeks to get the technology you want, contact info@leadinggeeks.com or call 310-694-0450.

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