The Power of Boundary Spanning and Networks (Part 2)

Along with my colleague, Rob Cross, we recently conducted an Organizational Network Analysis (ONA) as part of a boundary spanning intervention for a high-growth Silicon Valley company. The results were illuminating. We found that when investigating a large account team, only 5% of the most connected people held nearly 25% of the relationship connections, and that the 5%  top brokers (people who bridge diverse subgroups) held nearly 50% of the ties bridging organizational roles and functions. The big takeaway here is that a few key individuals play an instrumental role in holding together a critical and strategic account network. Why is this so, and what can be done about it?

All too often, in organizations like this one, too few people play too critical a role in connecting people across the organization. The reason is simple – spanning boundaries is hard work. It’s much easier to work within your own function, own region or geography, or own box on the organizational chart. Research bears this out. Studies show that boundary spanning can be associated with higher levels of role conflict, overload, and burnout. No wonder “keeping heads down and tucked” like a turtle is the way many of us cope with the ever-increasing pace and demands thrust upon us.

The problem, of course, is that the work that matters the most today – whether it be solving a mission critical problem, breakthrough innovation, or leading transformational change – sprawls outside formal organizational boundaries. Keeping heads down and tucked simply isn’t going to solve the challenges that matter most today for creating a better tomorrow.

One promising solution is to migrate boundary spanning from just an individual capability to more of a collective capability. At CCL, we intend to explore this further in our upcoming research and development. Can group or team level boundary spanning behavior help rebalance and add strength to networks such as the one we investigated above? Can more interdependent boundary spanning networks create more agile, flexible, and sustainable organizations than independent networks that rely upon a few key, often heroic individuals to bind people together? And can these new approaches support all of us to experience less role conflict and burnout and more personal thriving and well-being in our work?

We look forward to addressing these important questions and reporting our findings along the way. Stay tuned in the New Year.

About Chris Ernst

Chris Ernst, Ph.D. is a research faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership, and thought leader in residence at Juniper Networks, whose vision is to “Connect Everything, Empower Everyone” through high-performance networking systems and innovation.
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4 Responses to The Power of Boundary Spanning and Networks (Part 2)

  1. David Galloway says:

    At Galloway Consulting in our transformational work with hospitals and health care systems, we have been using ONA (via Rob) to discover those brokering roles in terms of the composition of teams for change initiatives. We also utilized the connectors and brokers in setting up “listening posts” within the organization to track how the cascading of message is progressing through the organization. We have also used the PNA to coach various leaders in the “how” of networking and the value-added to those high performing practices.

    • Chris Ernst says:

      David, thanks for sharing your innovative work within the healthcare arena. In checking out the Galloway Consulting site, you guys are doing some important work. Let’s keep in touch. – Chris

  2. Cathy Downes says:

    I am interested that your response to the problem you frame – too few boundary spanners in organizations – you seek to examine the solution of “migrate boundary spanning from just an individual capability to more of a collective capability.” As a boundary spanner in my own organization, the biggest problem is not so much having more boundary spanning colleagues, but reducing, mitigating, removing, deconstructing the barriers and impediments (cultural, procedural, structural) to easily connecting across boundaries.

    We base and reward leadership behaviours on building and sustaining teams. The trouble is that we are too good at this. Loyalties create moats around units, functions, components, etc. Rewards and recognition are at the component, unit, function level. If one attempts to cross boundaries, often one is regarded as “not a team player”, or “sending the wrong message to subordinates and colleagues”.

    The impediments are not only deep-rooted but appear in many manifestations – for example, the purchase and preservation of proprietary IT systems that cannot work together so boundary spanners cannot share information; duplicated ownerships that create separate sovereignties with all the internal controls, defenses and protections that go with the term sovereign.

    The various parts and pieces of many organizations do not necessarily have an “enterprise-wide” focus, perspective commonly shared and embedded. We need to educate leaders to create and shape work environments where boundary spanning is not only easy to do, is recognized and prized, and becomes the intuitive first response for performing mission.

    • Charles J. Palus says:

      Cathy, what you say makes a lot of sense and is all too common. By “collective capability” we also mean more than just having more people as spanners. There are barriers to be removed, as well as new beliefs and practices to be instilled. A lot of it is about what we refer to as the leadership culture, and how to start shifting it. You might like the book Transforming Your Leadership Culture by John McGuire and Gary Rhodes, it talks about capability in broader terms.

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