Now that the network has been discovered, the second step is to activate it. This is easier said than done. Advances in collaboration technologies are dismantling many of the boundaries that once prevented people from working together. Yet as physical boundaries are removed, the boundaries that exist in human relationships remain.

While at the Center for Creative Leadership, I led a 10-year study of organizational effectiveness and boundaries. My colleagues and I found that five types of boundaries challenge leaders and organizations to work in new ways:


We also found that 86 percent of senior executives think working across boundaries is “very important” for business performance – yet just 7 percent said they were “very effective” at doing so.

Building on the research, we’ve cracked the code of what governs productive, innovative, collaborative human networks. Like mapping DNA, the code has always been there. What we’ve done is give that code a framework, language, and set of tools to make it actionable.

The code begins with a new definition of boundaries – boundaries can also be frontiers. Wherever boundaries collide and diverse expertise and experience intersect, there is potential for solving pressing problems, driving innovation, and leading breakthrough change.

With this perspective, I help leaders and organization to enact three strategies – Managing Boundaries, Forging Common Ground, and Discovering New Frontiers – and to learn specific practices and tactics that lead to limitless possibilities for boundary spanning and transformation.

Here’s a concrete example from Juniper Networks, an innovator in the competitive computer network industry and where I worked as Vice-President, Leadership and Organization Effectiveness.

Just over three years ago, the Silicon Valley company was experiencing growing pains as its operating model became increasingly complex. Innovation is Juniper’s lifeblood, and the fast-paced complexity of work in a global, high-tech company was taking its toll. Innovation processes that used to work were getting bogged down in silos and bureaucracy.

Senior leaders agreed to take a risk and create a boundary spanning network geared to jump-starting innovation and new ways of thinking about collaboration. The network consisted of 85 employees that spanned six vertical layers (from executive vice presidents to first-line managers), 13 horizontal functions across groups, 5 tenure bands, and 18 geographical locations. Next, Juniper conducted an Organizational Network Analysis, or ONA, of these employees, which showed minimal or no connectivity across groups. Isolation, lack of knowledge of different perspectives or parts of the organization, poor communication, no shared ownership … these were symptoms that were causing the company to lose its start-up agility and innovative energy.

Based on work led by my long-time colleague, Courtney Harrison, we created a three-day “Innovation Challenge” for the network in San Francisco. The 85 leaders identified to be in the network were tasked to collaborate with people they didn’t know on an assignment that had open-ended parameters. They explored the needs of their customer’s customers equipped with cameras, journals, and maps and took to the city streets. They engaged with subject- matter experts in free-flowing conversation rather than as talking heads. And they shared their most promising ideas with senior executives informally (no slide presentations) with the intention of learning and exploring, rather than evaluating. The explicit goal was to hatch new product ideas. But the parallel goal was to build capacity for boundary spanning collaboration.

The outcome of the initiative was extraordinary on both fronts. In six months, the innovation network took an idea from the Challenge experience, built a product prototype, and got a customer to pilot the product. Today, the product is being put to use by multiple customers. There is universal agreement that it would have never seen the light of day if it were not for this network. And from a capability perspective, 100% of the leaders said they were:

  • Better connected to colleagues
  • Engaged to be part of Juniper’s future
  • Better positioned to have conversations with their customers

Based on the success and lessons learned from this and other network projects, Juniper is now intentionally utilizing boundary spanning networks with about 5 percent of employees. The ideas, language, and essence of boundary spanning has permeated  the organization. Juniper is now a leader not just in the technology networks it creates, but also in harnessing human networks essential to making innovation happen.

This example shows that the same factors that limit or constrain other networks – lack of trust, limited communication, isolation – could have easily waylaid these 85 leaders. Yet, by using various boundary spanning practices and tactics, they were ultimately able to reframe these boundaries as sources of inspiration.

Activating the network is about reframing common boundaries as places for opportunity and innovation.

Discover the Network
Makes invisible relationships that drive results, visible
Activate the Network
Reframes common barriers as places for opportunity and innovation
Sustain the Network
Builds new capabilities to change the way work, works

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