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Managing Beyond Organizational Limits

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Christine Springer
November 7, 2014

Springer novToday’s public administrator needs to be increasingly focused on finding ways to eliminate barriers when groups collide. They also must learn how to be more agile in response to changing political environments and more flexible in devising and deploying cross-functional learning and problem-solving capabilities within the organization. Public administrators must know how to work with partners in deeper and more open relationships and how to empower virtual teams and create a diverse, welcoming and inclusive organization that brings out everyone’s best qualities and work. But barriers do exist.

In a recent survey that I conducted of 150 senior-level executives, 88 percent told us that it is “extremely important” that they collaborate effectively across barriers in their current organization. They also indicated that public administrators need to apply six barrier reducing practices including buffering, reflecting, connecting, mobilizing, weaving and then transforming them into value driven incentives by defining the barriers that exist, suspending those that don’t build trust, reframing them to develop a better community and then cross-cutting barriers so as to enable reinvention.

They first identified five types of barriers and the way groups define themselves on the basis of their differences and split into us and them groups.

  • Vertical barriers emphasize the different perspectives or vantage points of top management versus front-line supervisors.
  • Horizontal barriers highlight differences between different expertise areas such as sales, engineering, social work or procurement.
  • Stakeholder barriers exist when they have different and, at times, competing interests. Demographic barriers often mean crossing generational lines of difference when baby boomers’ identification is tied to loyalty and a strong work ethic but Generation Xers is tied to enjoying life rather than working themselves into the grave. Stakeholder barriers exist when different groups have different and even competing interests.
  • Demographic barriers exist when different generational groups (Baby Boomers and Generation Xers) view organizational commitment in radically different ways while managers must find a way to evaluate and reward both groups fairly.
  • Geographic barriers exist when groups are separated on the basis of distance and Westerners define themselves by and take pride in entrepreneurial spirit, whereas Easterners pride themselves on tradition and conformity, according to those we surveyed and interviewed.

Managing the barriers requires the protection of groups from outside influences or threats and building intergroup safety. There are at least four management tactics that seem to work: 

1. Separating groups so as to eliminate interactions across barriers altogether.

2. Reducing threats from external influences so as to temper the perception of loss to reduce threat and resistance to change.

3. Making barriers visible to others by establishing rules of engagement, using team governance models and creating operating agreements to make the barrier more visible because it is being disregarded or violated in some way.

4. Creating a unifying team identity by clarifying its mission and vision and making roles and tasks clear for its members.

Reflecting upon distinct group perspectives and facilitating knowledge exchange across groups to understand barriers and foster intergroup respect is also helpful.

1. Creating opportunities for groups to listen and learn about one another through attendance at communication sessions, job shadowing, job rotation and site visits will foster greater awareness about other groups and the potential collaborative opportunities between them.

2. Asking powerful questions to uncover deep differences in values, assumptions, perceptions and emotions that lead to conflict rather than collaboration.

3. Letting commonalities emerge from differences so as to uncover the values and perspectives that all share.

4. Counteracting the tendency for groups to want to make them like us requires accepting the differences that separate groups by encouraging them to accept one another and focus on change from within not making everyone the same.

5. Slowing groups down to speed them up after they are able to take a time-out and make sense of the complexity of the tasks that they face.

Developing community involves asking groups to set aside their differences to work toward a common goal by:

1. Crafting a galvanizing vision, mission or goal that rallies groups to take collective action by focusing on a common cause and emphasizing what is positive and distinctive about the organization.

2. Building shared identity by identifying common, inclusive values so as to internalize the core behaviors and beliefs needed to get to where the organization wants to be.

3. Developing a culture in which “everyone belongs” by creating and changing the organizational culture starting with each and every individual.

4. Crafting shared symbols or artifacts to represent who “we” are and what “we” are so as to create a meaningful and transcendent purpose.

5. Narrating stories in which everyone plays a part so as to describe how things fit together and convey shared values, emotion and aspirations which are more useful than any number of objective statistics or data points.

Transforming an organization requires public administrators to bring together different people, using different approaches, to cross-cut barriers so as to enable common motivation and inter-group reinvention. When intergroup identities change, the boundaries associated with those identities change.

1. Bring the whole organization into the room and make sure that there is representation from all groups and that all points of view will be heard.

2. Frame the issue as the first act of leadership so that the identities and views of all groups that span the divide are heard and taken into consideration.

3. Give equal space and time to all groups and allow them to create and envision an alternative future.

4. Allow all groups to confirm their core values so that they feel more grounded and secure and people realize that despite their differences, members of all groups have decent and principled values that sometimes overlap.

5. Create a channel for both positive and negative energy to flow as you seek to discover new frontiers and draw out both the similarities and differences so as to create a channel for positive and negative energy to flow.

By identifying the barriers that exist, creating management techniques, reflecting upon those barriers and what management techniques are required, developing community through individual meetings with different groups and then bringing all of them together in one room to share their core values and identify and eliminate the barriers that exist provides a way to solve problems, drive innovation and transform the organization. It also redefines managing beyond organizational limits as the limitless possibility with inspiring results that groups can achieve together above and beyond what they could achieve on their own.


Author: Christine Springer can be reached at [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

One Response to Managing Beyond Organizational Limits

  1. Captain Charles Crosby Reply

    November 10, 2014 at 2:02 pm

    The chief executive would need to carefully block off time to coordinate the various phases and steps to accomplish this significant of a change. Good read, thanks for sharing

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