Boundary Spanning to spur Innovation: It’s Worth the Effort

Businesses today have to deal with ambiguous and complex challenges which increasingly rely on harnessing of a range of skills and a reliance upon interdisciplinary perspectives.

Examples are legion. Nanotechnology achieves its spectacular breakthroughs by drawing upon the skills of physicists, biologists and chemists. Disease control efforts bring together public health officials, behavioural scientists and epidemiologists.

Complex issues can rarely be solved by a single expert working alone, no matter how smart he or she is and indeed the same limitation applies to homogeneous teams trained in a single discipline.

Getting beyond this overarching obstacle requires some form of collaboration with people or groups who have different skills. Collaboration is the conscious and deliberate integration of skills, experience and expertise from different individuals and groups who each have something distinct or unique to contribute. Collaboration frequently requires an interaction with individuals who operate in spheres which are separated by one or other kind of boundary. Such boundaries may be geographical, legal, cultural, linguistic, operational or knowledge-based.

“Boundary spanning” – the act of linking individuals and teams across these borders – presents difficulties, because individuals and inward- focussed groups are not naturally attuned to address problems by broadening the scope of their investigations or by inviting contributions from people whose skills they are unfamiliar with. There is also a natural tendency towards increased specialisation to deal with the complexity of the current marketplace, which leads to increased siloing of organisations. These silos eventually encompass self-contained units, between which knowledge does not easily pass.

Management theory and research make it clear that individuals and teams tend to favour the safer exploitation or extension of current knowledge rather than embarking upon an exploration of entirely new areas of knowledge. Learning new things comes at a significant cost in time and effort and engaging with other individuals and teams involves risk and uncertainty. A number of strategies can be employed to facilitate cross-boundary spanning and Symmetra’s experience in helping organisations build inclusive cultures to leverage diversity of thought provides valuable insight that inform some of the issues and mechanics of cross-boundary teaming. 

Diverse attributes can be either visible – including such characteristics as race, gender, age and ethnicity – or they may reflect a deeper underlying diversity based upon educational background, work-style, cultural perspectives or modes of thinking. The latter category of diversity can be encapsulated under the mantra of “knowledge diversity”. Leveraging knowledge diversity has become a primary feature of driving innovation and securing competitive advantage for businesses. Diverse knowledge may be located within specific teams or may be spread across a number of teams separated from each other and working independently, often in ignorance of what colleagues are doing and lacking the benefits that cross-pollination of boundary-spanning can bring.

In many ways, the skills required to span boundaries formed by visible diversity are the same skills required to span functional and organisational boundaries. Having a curious mindset which values differences, the capability to adapt to different ways of thinking and working, and the know-how to create environment of psychological safety, are crucial in both cases.

Symmetra has been working over several years with domestic organisations in the Asia Pacific as well as with global organisations spread geographically to imbed an inclusive culture throughout internal teams and across boundaries. Our model and definition of inclusion includes boundary spanning as a pivotal component, as it is one of the key indicators of a leader’s skills to create inclusion in their team as well as deliver innovative outcomes by leveraging diverse perspectives.

Through extensive data gathered via our dedicated inclusion-measuring tools, Symmetra is able to pin-point some of the critical areas which constitute challenges for leveraging diversity and which could stand in the way of successful boundary-spanning efforts.

To hear more about boundary-spanning join us at our next Symmetra Connect Session: Bridges, Tunnels and Pole Vaults on 29 August: 

 

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