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.