Do You Have What It Takes to be a Boundary Spanner?
As teaming becomes an efficient way to gain additional minds and resources, the individual who guides the team plays a vital role. This person is the boundary spanner.
Forming an effective team is more complex than combining technologies and filling slots. Potential team members need to be interviewed, their skills and knowledge assessed, and the quality of their work researched. Importantly, a team must be led by someone who understands the dynamics of group communication.
Once a team is assembled, usually without guidance, members of the team emerge who want to exert greater influence over the process. Leadership struggles and interpersonal differences begin to emerge. Conflict is not always bad; functional conflict can be a mechanism for alternative views and opinions that improve communication, integration and creativity. However, it must be harnessed to be used effectively. The role of the boundary spanner is to manage the conflict.
Because communication is a vital component to successful teaming arrangements, the boundary spanner moves information across boundaries of organizations and serves as a communication link for receiving and distributing information. The individual charged with this role therefore must possess a high degree of social intelligence for perceiving, reasoning, understanding and managing. When the project demands are finite and limited to certain expertise, team development depends on the person steering the team, the boundary spanner.
One company proficient at managing teams is Architectural Resource Consultants (ARC) based out of Irvine, Calif., guided by boundary spanner John Russo. Russo has created and managed large teams to document properties for organizations like the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, U.S. General Services Administration and Disney.
The goal of Russo’s firm is to provide resources to enable smaller companies to take on larger projects. “I first realized I wanted to build a culture of teaming into my business model back in 2005 to grow my business outside its immediate Southern California region and become a player in a national market,” he explains. “It wasn’t long before I began to see that building a strong network of partners I could trust would become instrumental in my company’s success.”
Russo says the biggest motivator for teaming is acquiring additional expertise. “Teaming exposed me to people and opportunities that allow me to realistically commit to servicing prospective clients with unlimited resources, and without the geographic limitations that small businesses normally are bound by.”
Once trust and transparency is established, teaming can become very effective. Healthy teaming relationships can lead to opportunities for all members. “Our GSA contract is a perfect example,” Russo says. “In a nationwide competition of leading laser scanning service providers, ARC was selected by GSA to receive one of six 5-year, $30 million Indefinite Delivery, Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contracts for nationwide laser scanning services.
“We built a team of partners for a very specific mission to win a government contract. Many relationships that were established over the course of pursuing this contract have resulted in new opportunities. I originally thought I would be bringing work to [our team organizations], but it turned out that they helped me get projects in pursuit of opportunities they were chasing.”
Today, ARC primarily focuses on developing partnerships of interconnections and interdependencies in order to take on larger projects or specified projects by creating strategic alliances, joint working arrangements, networks, partnerships and many other forms of collaboration across organizational boundaries. The firm has connected more than 100 team members with capabilities that include building information modeling (BIM), high definition static scanning (HDS), architectural design, and terrestrial mobile laser scanning (TMLS).
Although the number of organizations that use teaming to enhance their businesses is difficult to determine, researchers agree that it is becoming a viable business model.
Identifying firms that can become part of a successful team requires more than just evaluating knowledge and expertise. Individual personalities, perspectives and leadership styles can create complementary strengths and diversifying weaknesses.
Homogeneous teams, those with similar capabilities, are likely to be more productive when the task is simple and quick action is necessary. This is because the degree of similarity can define the type and level of conflict. The more team members are alike, the less conflict will exist. However, “groupthink”—a condition that occurs when team members are too tightly linked—can limit creativity in homogeneous teams. The members of the team tend to reinforce decisions because of commonality rather than seeking the best approach. The philosophy reinforced by groupthink of “tried and true” versus risk taking tends to limit additional options and narrow the team’s focus.
When assembling a team with like technologies, Russo looks first at the technology side. “I think it is important to access process. If my partners use similar technologies, then there shouldn’t be technological barriers to overcome just the processes they use with those technologies,” he explains.
Heterogeneous teams, those with dissimilar or diverse capabilities, are more productive when the task is complex and requires creativity. More conflict will be experienced in diverse teams.
So which team attributes are easier to manage? According to Russo, “When a team is composed of teammates with specialization, there is always the possibility that misunderstandings can creep in. Partners who understand each other’s technologies are less likely to have those barriers to overcome.”
The need for additional resources, expertise and credibility on a specific project can motivate firms to seek out teaming partners. But Russo says there is a larger picture. “Teaming is a way of doing business,” he says. “It is extremely powerful, allowing you to scale your operations on a moment’s notice and pursue opportunities you could not otherwise pursue. It is the ultimate tool in the toolbox.”
When assembling a team, trust is an important consideration. It is necessary to assess the motivation for teaming by individuals. Are they part of the team for other reasons like competitive advantage or fact find? Or are they truly open to the larger goal?
Sometimes competitors can work well together because of respect for each other. However, Russo cautions, “You have to assess the reason for participation; otherwise, the communication is guarded. Without trust, teaming won’t work effectively, regardless of the expertise applied to the technology.
“If you are too worried about what your competitors will learn about you, or you are afraid to share your knowledge and processes, then maybe partnering won’t be a good fit,” he adds. “But, if you are willing to trust in others, then they are more likely to trust in you, and in doing so a mutually beneficial relationship can form.”
To evaluate the potential for compatibility and trust, Russo takes a personal approach. “I prefer to speak directly with people versus email or other electronic communications,” he explains. “Direct communication is much more personal and helps facilitate developing relationships. Teaming is about building relationships, not just a database. I think this concept gets lost in the new social media generation.”
Although team members can be discovered through individual networking, professional organizations often provide an ideal framework for building successful teams. To that end, one of Russo’s most recent initiatives was the creation of the U.S. Institute of Building Documentation (USIBD), a nonprofit organization dedicated to furthering excellence in building documentation—in part by cultivating networking and information sharing.
In an era where economic challenges and rapid technology advances are placing extraordinary pressure on small firms, unlikely alliances can enhance capabilities and build a strong foundation for future success.
“I’ve found over the years that many of my partners in my network have become my best friends,” Russo says. “We will often call each other just to see how each other is doing or to share a story. Establishing a culture of partnering was one of the best decisions I ever made for my business and myself.”