Becoming boundaryless: Leveraging untapped potential for competitive advantage

Becoming boundaryless: Leveraging untapped potential for competitive advantage
Executive Summary
The first step to building a culture of collaboration, innovation and engagement is rethinking organisational design. By challenging traditional ideas about work, and removing hierarchical, functional and geographic boundaries, leaders can leverage untapped potential for competitive advantage. With greater flexibility and integration, boundaryless organisations can move quickly and nimbly through the changing business terrain and capitalise on new markets, new opportunities and new technologies.

 

In an era of globalisation and rapid technological innovation, leaders are being forced to embrace a new business model. Vertical hierarchies and silo thinking are fast giving way to a more flexible approach to organisational design. Speed, flexibility, integration and innovation are the new organisational success factors – but these can only be attained if leaders have the courage to move beyond the tried and tested.

It was former General Electric CEO, Jack Welch, who first coined the term ‘boundaryless organisation’ in the early 1990s. Welch recognised that the combined knowledge, skills, ideas and talents of GE’s workforce represented a major source of competitive advantage for the business. He believed that the removal of internal and external barriers would uncover a reservoir of ideas and innovation, and increase the organisation’s responsiveness to changing market needs.

Welch identified five criteria that a winning organisation would need to satisfy to become, and remain, competitive in a fast-changing global economy:

  1. Eradicate bureaucracy to free the organisation from constraints, such as too many organisational levels and overregulation.
  2. Eliminate boundaries to release potential, innovation and creativity.
  3. Focus on softer values, such as team building and the sharing of ideas,rather than purely on financial performance.
  4. Cultivate leaders to deliver on the vision and values, and meet commitments.
  5. Create a learning culture to encourage the free flow of information.boundaryless

To unleash the innate potential of their people, an effective organisation should remove any barriers that get in the way of innovative, creative performance. In particular, functional boundaries should be removed. An organisation free of unnecessary boundaries is one that is free of bureaucracy, and any other constraint that prevents the free flow of ideas, solutions, talent, etc. Typically, the boundaryless organisation is characterized by informality, fun, and speedy reactions to problems and concerns.
— Jack Welch

 

These criteria are the precursors to a boundaryless organisation where unnecessary barriers are removed, creating opportunities for seamless functioning across an extended supply chain. In this scenario, competitive advantage is sustained by establishing fluid alliances and networks with strategic partners.

Rethinking organisational design

Boundaryless organisations operate across a fully integrated value network, sharing strategic thinking and involving key partners in key decisions. The effectiveness of such an organisation is dependent on a number of relational issues, including:

  • A high level of mutual trust
  • A culture of knowledge sharing, within and outside the organisation
  • Continual innovation and experimentation, often in collaboration with customers
  • A values-led leadership style that focuses on coaching and energising, rather than on directing and control

To achieve these success factors, organisations need to reshape four types of boundaries:

  1. Vertical boundaries, which separate people by hierarchical levels, titles, status, and rank. Boundaryless organisations reject these kinds of barriers in favour of open-door policies, open-plan offices, and accessible C-suite leaders.
  2. Horizontal boundaries, which separate people by function, business unit, product group or division. In a boundaryless organisation, there is a blurring of responsibilities as teams are organised by process rather than by function or department.
  3. External boundaries which separate organisations from their suppliers, customers, communities and other external constituencies. In a boundaryless organisation, product design ideas, innovation and strategic thinking are shared with consulting suppliers and customers.
  4. Geographic boundaries and cultural differences are transcended in boundaryless organisations where new technologies are employed to connect employees across the globe.

Each of these boundaries needs appropriate permeability and flexibility, so that ideas, information and resources can flow freely up and down, in and out, and across the organisation. The idea is not to have totally permeable or non-existent boundaries — that would be ‘disorganisation’. Rather, there should be sufficient permeability to allow the organisation or value chains to adjust to changes in the environment quickly and creatively.

Each of these boundaries needs appropriate permeability and flexibility, so that ideas, information and resources can flow freely up and down, in and out, and across the organisation.
The role of leadership

A boundaryless organisation requires a leader who can manage complexity, embrace cultural diversity, is comfortable in times of uncertainty and views change as an opportunity. Here are four levers you can use to foster permeability within your organisation:

Information
Ensure that information is shared across all boundaries throughout the extended value chain.

Authority
Give your people the power to make independent decisions about action and resources.

Competence
Help your people develop the skills and capabilities needed to leverage information and authority wisely.

Rewards
Provide incentives that promote organisational objectives and are based on accomplishment rather than position.

To successfully lead a boundaryless organisation, you need to shift from command and control to methods that rely more on creating a shared mindset, stretching targets and empowering colleagues. At the same time, you need to keep the focus on results, maintain clear accountability for performance and make tough decisions.

Getting buy-in

Once boundaries are removed, or reduced, creativity, innovation and adaptability are unlocked. The benefits of a boundaryless organisation include:

  • Greater flexibility and responsiveness to change
  • The free exchange of information and ideas
  • Better integration between departments and functions
  • Closer partnerships with suppliers and customers
Getting buy-in from your leadership team will likely involve convincing them to eradicate bureaucracy and reframe their concept of organisational design. 

boundarylessThe first step to becoming boundaryless is challenging assumptions about organisational architecture. Getting buy-in from your leadership team will likely involve convincing them to eradicate bureaucracy and reframe their concept of organisational design. Following are some common concerns your team might express about becoming boundaryless, and how you can alleviate their concerns:

  • Relaxed working environments, including work-from-home options, could lead to some employees taking advantage and becoming less productive.
    Fulfilled employees who have the ear of their peers and superiors, and can see an exciting career path ahead of them, are more likely to remain engaged and committed to the organisation’s vision.
  • Not everybody is comfortable with using technology to communicate. Some employees prefer face-to-face communication only.
    All employees need to take part in onboarding programmes and should be encouraged to embrace the technological environment. Case studies that demonstrate the success of collaborative technologies can also help to secure buy-in.
  • Somebody has to lead – ‘boundaryless’ is a more of a philosophy, and cannot be practically applied in every facet of the business.
    ‘Boundaryless’ does not mean that every boundary has been eradicated. The organisation will still need leadership, and some decisions can only be made by the executive leadership teams.
  • There will be detractors who will resist the idea of becoming boundaryless.
    Change management and onboarding programmes will have to be implemented, particularly if the hierarchical structure is well entrenched.
  • Where organisations are made up of a strong outsource model, i.e. the boundaries between a cluster of companies, suppliers and customers have been blurred, there can be a lack of organisational identity which is potentially confusing for employees.
    There needs to be a strong brand identity within the organisation and in the marketplace. Constant feedback from employees and customers will offer insight into how the marketplace views your brand.
By becoming boundaryless, you’ll be able to tap into hidden reserves of talent and possibility, and create a dynamic, flexible and adaptable organisation.

By becoming boundaryless, you’ll be able to tap into hidden reserves of talent and possibility, and create a dynamic, flexible and adaptable organisation. These are the characteristics that will move your organisation quickly and nimbly through the changing business terrain and help you capitalise on new opportunities, new markets and new technologies.

 

Disclaimer
This resource has been prepared for general guidance on matters of interest only, and does not constitute professional advice. You should not act upon the information contained herein without obtaining specific professional advice. Competitive Capabilities International (CCi) does not accept or assume any liability, responsibility or duty of care for any consequences of you or anyone else acting, or refraining to act, in reliance on the information contained in this resource or for any decision based on it.

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