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Thriving in a Boundaryless Organization: How People Can Make a Difference

March 25, 2012

Updated April 10, 2013

Boundaryless, horizontality, borderless, cross-functional.

These words, plus more, have been used to describe the need to move beyond traditional organizational designs to a new form that is based on enabling people to perform their work and to serve customers more effectively.

How people collaborate, share information, learn from one another, generate new knowledge, and disperse this knowledge throughout their organizations is at the heart of why change is urgently needed.

I’ve chosen to use boundaryless. However, it’s not the word that’s important but rather the change in mindset that must accompany the use of it. Otherwise, we risk alienating people as they become numb to more espoused concepts and promises.

The Boundaryless Organization (initially coined by Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric) is in effect an organization without walls. This type of organization is founded upon interdependency and trust. Without these two key characteristics, an organization is blocked from moving from the old organizational model to the new model characterized by the absence of functional walls and turfs.

The individual working in a boundaryless environment must understand the importance of these characteristics. She must trust her co-workers and be willing to support them anytime  to back them up consistently when needed.

She’s acutely aware of the need for a high level of interdependency among people, and in turn the importance of mutual accountability. People share when credit is given, and conversely, share when mistakes are made. Scapegoats don’t exist.

Whatever is flexible and flowing will tend to grow;
whatever is rigid and blocked will wither and die.

Lao Tzu

The boundaryless person is one who sees the big picture. He sees the interrelationships and patterns within the organization, as well as emerging trends in the outside world. He strives continually to build strong and lasting relationships with others.

He’s not interested in protecting his turf. His focus is on the organization’s best interests, its future and well-being. Moreover, he has an obsession for customer service. Not only does he respond quickly to customer needs, but he makes every effort to anticipate them.

To accomplish this, and to be effective in the boundaryless organization, this individual is nimble and agile. He moves effortlessly across the organization, seeking peoples’ inputs and making things happen.

The boundaryless individual has a direct impact on management. In this type of environment, managers assume a new role. They now work across the organization, forgetting about previous fiefdoms. They thrive on inspiring their people to connect with others, to make things happen, and to serve customers to the highest degree possible.

The manager serves as a catalyst to her people. Less reliance is placed on managing things (i.e., doing things right) and more is placed on leading people (i.e., doing the right thing).

A high level of energy prevails in the boundaryless organization. People are charged up with knowing that they are making a meaningful contribution to the organization. They’re avid learners, continually seeking out new information and acquiring new skills. They realize that the more they learn that the more ignorant they are. Yet, they possess self-confidence, realizing that learning is a never-ending journey.

The boundaryless individual can therefore be viewed as someone who exhibits the following traits:
• Possesses self-confidence,
• Trusts others,
• Sees interdependencies and patterns,
• Works across the organization,
• Builds relationships,
• Takes the initiative to make things happen,
• Is obsessed with customer service,
• Has a zest for learning.

How many of these traits do you possess?

To thrive in a world of change and chaos, we will need to accept
chaos as an essential process by which natural systems,
including organizations, renew and revitalize themselves.

– Kevin McCarey

Photo by Sue Butler

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 26, 2012 7:33 am

    These traits also apply to societies. As I read your list, I thought of work behavior in North African cultures. No one trains their underlings because they think, “If I provide any training, he might take my job.” Everyone manages their own turf like a mini-fiefdom. No one shares information because they feel having secret information that others don’t helps them in the game of one-upsmanship. So you can see why businesses do not run smoothly here! This has been very frustrating to those of us who are American, here. Americans often come into an organization attempting to do the the things you’ve listed above, and they run into a brick wall. It takes years to figure out what is going on! However, I hear that French culture is very much the same. This leads me to wonder, do you find much difference in the way companies are run between the English-speaking and French-speaking parts of Canada? How much culture-clash is there in Canadian firms when you get employees from both parts of Canada working together in the same organizations?

    –Lynne Diligent

    • March 26, 2012 1:09 pm

      Lynne, what you describe is quite interesting, especially from a European French perspective. My following comment is based on my 30 years working in the public sector; I can’t speak for private firms, though I’d say it’s similar.

      I worked both in the bilingual, small province of New Brunswick (1/3 French) and found that Francophones were more animated and willing to socialize and probably share more than Anglophones. As much as there was the typical whining by Anglophones about bilingualism, especially in the southern part of the province which is dominated by english speakers, there was still a lot of collaboration and good will.

      I moved to Ottawa in 2000, land of ivory towers as it’s the national headquarters for the federal government. So the context was on a much larger scale. Yes, there was (and remains) a lot of turf protection and gamesmanship as people try to advance their careers. However, Anglophones and Francophones work generally well together.

      In Canada, I’d say the issue is less a clash between English and French speaking people, but more one of the lack of effective leadership in creating workplaces without silos.

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