Think Leadership Ideas

Collaboration Across Boundaries

In an increasingly complex world you will be more likely to face the challenge of working across major organizational boundaries. Maybe it will take the form of cross-functional teams or cross-departmental projects within an organization. Maybe it will take the form of several companies working together to realize a business opportunity. Certainly many community projects – from creating amenities such as parks, sports arenas, or theaters, to dealing with major social problems – require not only different organizations working together, but efforts that span across business, nonprofit, and public sectors.

Whether your project crosses functions, silos, organizations, or industry sectors, to ensure success you’ll want to find coherent answers to these 5 key questions:

1. Are the basics for success covered?

Any project or endeavor needs certain basic elements to succeed, what I’ve captured in the acronym GRACE:

Goals, objectives, and a clear purpose for existing;

Resources necessary to conduct the project;

Application, or market need;

Competency, both technical and managerial, to implement the project;

Energy, passion, or commitment that fuels motivation.

All project boundaries should include these key elements. The challenge of projects that cross major boundaries is that the specifics of these elements may appear quite different from the varying perspectives of the collaborating partners. Cross-boundary collaborations must clarify and articulate these elements broadly as to include all partners, while being sensitive to the variations that serve the specific purposes of the collaborating entities.

2. What is a motivating reason to collaborate?

Collaborations that cross major boundaries and involve multiple systems require extra effort. Successful collaborations are clear about the extra value produced that makes the collaboration worthwhile. There are three basic motivators to collaborate:

Responding to a common threat;

Accomplishing something that could not otherwise be done without the combined effort from all the parties involved;

Leveraging the value returned (either in benefits or cost savings), i.e., the math suggests 2+2=42.

3. How are stakes shared?

There is plenty of grey area when differentiating between the meaning of collaboration and notions of cooperating, coordinating, or contributing. Without sidetracking into semantics, one of the characteristics that distinguish collaboration is that the partners share in the stakes. Collaboration involves sharing resources, sharing risks, and sharing rewards (tangible and intangible, such as who gets credit for the success).

4. Is there true leadership?

The aspect of leadership as a static role, one designated as being “in charge”, is certainly relevant to cross-boundary collaborations. However, the aspect of leadership that doesn’t necessarily require a specific position – the act of leading –moves to the forefront in cross-boundary collaborations.

Leading is the act of gaining willing followers for a course of action when the way forward is uncertain. Leading consists of actions such as:

inviting others to move toward a new vision of the future;

preparing people for what to expect ahead while addressing fears;

articulating important values that provide motivation for joint action;

setting an emotional tone, especially passion for the endeavor;

eliciting commitment to stay on the journey.

In cross-boundary projects, participants often have great discretion when it comes to how much they will actually contribute to the effort. Leadership which acknowledges that collaboration is a choice, but makes the choice to participate compelling, can make all the difference in the success of the project.

5. What kind of relationship are we choosing?

By definition, collaborations across boundaries will involve diverse people, with different backgrounds, operating in different systems. Highly developed skills in communication and relationship management are a must. Success will require high levels of trust and often requires sensitivity to take care of secondary needs of the collaborating partners beyond the established goals of the project.

The rewards of major collaborations across boundaries can be great. To set the stage for success, ensure you have a firm handle on the project basics, a motivating reason for collaboration, an understanding of how stakes are shared, compelling leadership in place, and readiness to employ your best relationship skills.

by Tom Stevens (c)2006
Tom Stevens helps individuals and organizations create brilliant futures and make a difference. To contact him, visit

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