Boundary spanning and silo busting

12th April 2016, BUSINESS STANDARD

In the previous column, I described a successful collaboration between academia and industry; I emphasized the need for managers skilled in boundary because they are invaluable.

12th April 2016, BUSINESS STANDARD

In the previous column, I described a successful collaboration between academia and industry; I emphasized the need for managers skilled in boundary because they are invaluable. The term refers to “individuals within an innovation or transformation system who have, or adopt, the role of linking the organization’s networks both within and outside”.

Boundaries exist within every organization as also boundaries of the organization with external agencies. Managers inevitably face obstacles to their creativity and dynamism at the boundaries. Professor Michael Tushman of Harvard wrote a seminal paper in 1977 on the key importance of boundaries. (Administrative Science Quarterly, vol 22, No 4, December 1977)

Successful organizations nurture innovation managers; they encourage boundary spanning behavior, and support with organizational processes and practices. Boundary spanning includes (i) negotiating with non-group members, (ii) resolving disputes within the group, (iii) obtaining resources, (iv) establishment of influence networks, and (v) helping followers to deal with the external environment. In 2013 CCL (Center for Creative Leadership) published a white paper entitled Boundary Spanning in Action: tactics for transforming today’s borders into tomorrow’s frontiers.

Dr Robert Thomas, Managing Director of Research at Accenture told me “the best boundary spanners are intensely curious. They get real pleasure from understanding how others live. Boundary crossers are great at learning new languages and idioms; like consummate travellers, they are forever on the prowl for new places, new food and new ideas. They may not make friends everywhere they go, but they earn respect because they show respect for difference.”

There are fabulous Indian boundary spanners like Homi Bhabha, Verghese Kurien, C. Subramaniam and Narasimha Rao. The remarkable transformation of a filthy Surat by a boundary spanning IAS officer, SR Rao, has been chronicled (Making breakthrough innovations happen, Porus Munshi, Collins Business, 2009). In short enormous value is extracted by leaders who can adapt, stretch and operate at the boundaries, thus creatively disturbing the silos into which managers get slotted.

Anthropologist and writer, Gillian Tett, has pointed out that the word ‘silo’ means a tall tower or pit to store corn. She says silos are a state of mind, a cultural phenomenon. Telling stories about the silo effect can be rewarding. I think of two fantastic silo busters whom I have encountered.

I learnt from HLL Chairman T. Thomas, who led a path-breaking trajectory from 1974. Squeezed between rising costs of raw materials and price controls, HLL recorded losses for the first time in its history. Meticulously and patiently, Thomas and his senior officers met secretaries, ministers, and even Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and made data-rich presentations. There were setbacks and rebuffs, but they just would not relent. Finally, on 20th Sep, 1974, soap was decontrolled, a turning point in the history of HLL.

The other major advocacy and boundary spanning act I experienced was the retention of a majority shareholding for Unilever. Although foreign companies like BAT, Metal Box and Dunlop diluted their foreign shareholding as per FERA, Thomas was convinced that HLL’s management culture would erode if Unilever’s shareholding reduced to 40 percent. It took ten years, spanning two chairmen, hundreds of meetings at various levels and persistence in the face of more than one rejection. Government finally allowed 51% shareholding with the provisos that (a) the company should have 60% of its turnover in core sector and activities involving sophisticated technology and (b) exports should constitute 10%. At that time I led the company’s exports.

Nani Palkhivala also struck me as a fantastic boundary spanner. I knew him only a bit, but his boundary spanning attribute was striking. Although he was a brilliant writer and speaker, he told me that he had a stammer and had difficulty in writing due to a cramp! Unbelievable but true! He also narrated how he had accepted the brief for Ms Gandhi’s 1975 election appeal, got an interim judgment for her continuation as Prime Minister but returned Ms Gandhi’s brief when her government clamped emergency on the nation. He needed to be “consistent with my lifelong convictions and the values I cherish.” When JRD Tata expressed concern, he offered to step down from the Tata board. Later he served as India’s ambassador to the USA. What a boundary spanner!

TCS was a Tata start-up by MIT graduates, Ashok Malhotra, Nitin Patel and Lalit Kanodia. Soon an accomplished and senior MIT engineer, Faqir Chand Kohli, moved from Tata Electric and built TCS, brick by brick. Kohli generously attributes a part of his TCS success to Palkhivala’s chairmanship of TCS. “He had vision and was a good mentor…he never interfered in the details…and gave full backing to me, especially during times of crisis.” Quite a boundary spanning behavior from a non-technologist.

Indian innovation and economic development require several boundary spanners; for sure, Prime Minister Modi knows this. But in the corporate sector, are we CEOs trying to be magnets for boundary spanning managers?