The barbarians get through eventually anyway

Be careful where you build walls. They can take on a life of their own defining work, belonging and othering in complex ways. Encouraging teams and organisations to live with permeable and adaptable boundaries gives them a better chance to deliver value and realise their strategy than hard walls.

The Other Side

Humans are tribal. Walls shape the perception of the edge of our tribe, determining things like who belongs, what we believe and who we trust. A wall is a dramatic manifestation of the difference between the in-group who belong and the out-group who don’t.

Put a wall in the wrong place and it can have severe consequences. We are familiar with the battles between silos in our organisations. Those silo walls determine the limits of where power runs, information & resources are shared and who is trusted. Whether marked with glass, plasterboard or invisible lines, those boundaries are fiercely defended. Much of the dysfunction of our organisations occurs when these silo walls rise up between teams or become tall enough to be seen from outside. I suspect some organisations silo walls can be seen from the Moon.

More dangerously, I’ve seen companies that put their customers or suppliers or community on the other side of a wall as untrusted enemies and then wondered why their business struggles and employees make poor decisions. Far too many organisation install a glass wall, a door or a whole separate floor around the senior executives. The world inside those walls soon became its own bubble distinct from the rest of the organisation, customers or anyone else outside. Safety inside a wall can be very dangerous when you no longer understand the world beyond the wall.

From Walls to Permeable Boundaries

Tribalism attaches to even the flimsiest walls. Walls exist to separate and prevent exchange and interaction. Information flow falls, collaboration drops, conflict increases at these hard boundaries of power, resources or information. Before long people who need to work together and interact will see only the Other. Instead of walls we need permeable and adaptable boundaries that shifts with the demands of customers, the work and the changing circumstances.

As our organisations inevitably become more diverse and reflective of a connected global planet, we need to remember that diversity can lie in tension with trust. Difference can be creative but it can also undermine trust and collaboration. New walls can spring up in the organisation around the smallest barriers and differences. The answer is not to be less diverse. Misguided notions of ‘cultural fit’ are a path to failure. The key is to remember that diversity is inevitable and building relationships across an organisation needs to be a full time task.

Restructures are time consuming and destructive of trust and value. Avoiding the commitment to silo walls that will inevitably end up in the wrong place and need to be pulled down is a great saver of time and money. More importantly, encouraging your employees to see boundaries as adaptable where required ensures that internal barriers never get in the way of customers and that the external barriers of the organisation won’t become stultifying or impermeable too.

The simplest way to make your organisational boundaries more permeable is to engage your teams in a shared sense of effort. Building an enterprise-wide sense of community is a key underpinning capability and creates a framework for ongoing adaptation. Alignment to the organisational purpose and strategy provides a context for trust and understanding and a counterweight to unique teams. That same strategy helps define the relationships that matter beyond the organisation as well through suppliers, customers and community.

Relationships built across and through the organisation punch holes in the walls that do exist and enable people to develop the agency to make adaptation happen. Increasing alignment, transparency and purposeful agency drives exponential rewards in organisations far beyond the removal of waste, duplication and dysfunction.

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