09 August 2019

Boundary Spanning Leadership – reflections from a training course

​Along with a number of staff members at my library, I attended a half-day workshop last week on the topic of boundary spanning.

This was the first time the course had been offered at my workplace. It was run by our university HR Staff Development team, who delivered training ​materials licensed from the Center for Creative Leadership at no cost for staff.

CCL have been exploring boundary spanning as a management topic for a few years now, arguing that these skills are urgently required because most complex organisations and issues now require working across teams or organisations or disciplines to get to successful outcomes.​ This is the definitely the case in an Australian university!

The course covered three ways in which leaders, groups and organisation can span boundaries: managing boundaries, forging common ground, and discovering new frontiers. Six practical tactics were associated with these:

Managing boundaries

  • Buffering - defining boundaries to create a space of safety
​Examples: Defining shared values, clarifying roles and responsibilities, establishing explicit ‘rules of engagement’ with other teams, developing team charters, away-days / retreats, rewards and recognition, internal communications, team social events
  • Reflecting – looking across boundaries to foster respect and build an understanding of the similarities and differences between groups
Examples: Extend invitations to other groups to attend meetings and socialise, secondments, sabbaticals, job rotation, ‘decoding’ group jargon for others

Forging common ground

  • Connecting – stepping outside boundaries into a ‘third space’ to link and connect as individuals, forming new networks and deeper relationships 
Examples: Identify ’establish ‘third spaces’, cross-group mentoring and buddy schemes, create diary space for cross-team relationship building, ‘town-hall meetings’ in support of larger scale initiatives   
  • Mobilising - developing a shared space, common purpose, and shared identity across group boundaries (moving from “us” and “them” to “we)
Examples: Cross-functional project teams, working on building a sense of community after mergers/restructures, diversity initiatives, establishing a brand or identity for a cross-group service 

​​Discovering new frontiers​

  • Weaving – establishing a creative space (e.g. to develop innovative ideas or new solutions) in which group identifies remain distinct but are interwoven to add up to a larger whole 
Examples: secondments in different sectors, participating in cross-university consortia (e.g. CAUL, CAUDIT) or external engagement activities (e.g. with a focus on local/regional development), using fresh combinations of staff 
  • Transforming – bringing multiple groups together to reimagine and reinvent, moving beyond the known context and cutting across established norms, practices and identities
Examples: use cross-functional teams to establish ‘alternative futures’, cross-functional work as the norm, continually question legacy boundaries, explore collaboration with those usually thought of of as competitors, knowledge-exchange and partnerships outside your own sector / profession / industry

I found a lot of the course highly relevant to my job and my library's context. My key takeaway was that the tactics above should be addressed in a sequential order. In my own library's context, I understood this to mean that building a strong team identity and understanding of our shared purpose is essential if we are to then go on to successfully work across boundaries with other teams in the universities, other libraries, and other kinds of partners in the community.

Overall, I would highly recommend this training course and the associated material from the CCL website (see below). It provides a lot of practical guidance and options to consider in complex environments where collaboration is essential, but not always easy.

Further reading:  ​​

White Paper: B​oundary Spanning in Action: Tactics for Transforming Today's Borders into Tomorrow's Frontiers. ​