Boundary Riding: The Magic Productivity Enhancer
“Boundary rider is a long-established (1864) Australasian term for a cattle or sheep station employee whose duties entail a regular tour of the outer perimeter (boundary) of the property, checking condition of fences, collecting stock that may have escaped and ejecting strays that may have wandered onto the property, affecting any repairs that may be required, and reporting anything out of the ordinary to the owner or manager.”
We need more boundary riders if we want to enhance staff satisfaction with their work in universities, and to increase operational efficiency.
After years running large directorates in universities, following a period as an academic teaching conflict resolution, and now transforming outreach and student service into high-performance work teams, we have learned a few valuable lessons.
Lesson 1: Staff want to make a difference, but get stuck
Lesson 2: Meetings, formal and informal, are the enemy of GSD (Get Stuff Done)
Lesson 3: Boundary conflicts are in pandemic proportions in bureaucracies like universities.
In a university, we have found there to be four dominant narratives, but by no means exclusive, that represent how people are approaching their work. They are:
- Ambivalence – Who cares, it’s just a job
- Compliance – Because they are the rules we must
- Benevolence – Because we should, it’s the right thing by those of us who have benefits
- Social justice – Because we have to fight for the disenfranchised and save every soul from the clutches of disadvantage.
At the risk of further generalisation, most people in Student Support, Services, Engagement, Success and Widening Participation are our social justice warriors. They care about the students. Not just a bit, but generally they care a lot. They care about their mission—to enable learners to have better lives. They care about whether their efforts make a difference and they want to work on tasks that they believe help students succeed. They care if they can’t do their job.
Our warriors are the ground troops that enable student success and social inclusion. They are a powerful force for change, provided that they are allowed and enabled to do so. Our warriors start keen, a fine-edged blade of change, and then we put them into a university programme and… well, let’s think “a butter knife”.
What prevents people from doing a job that they have been employed to do, or at least what they thought they were supposed to do? Well, lots of things, however, let’s start with a lack of clarity about the following:
- What are they were supposed to be doing?
- How is it to be done?
- What system or procedure should be followed?
- Where is this so-called procedure, if it exists?
- What about the issues which are not in our position descriptions: should they do it or should someone else?
- Who can they ask?
Our enterprising warriors just do what anyone else with these questions would, they ask someone else. They chat to the person beside them, in the next office, down the hall, send emails and CC others who may also be unclear or may know the answer. Before long a committee is formed, meetings are diarised, hours and days are devoted to locating a consensus in the search for the elusive “clarity”. Welcome to a university. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether this is an exaggeration or not, but what we really have is a boundary problem.
Simply boundary conflict occurs when people disagree on boundaries or expand, break, or refuse to accept the authority or jurisdiction inherent in a boundary because they are confused about where their boundary is.
I’m not advocating for more manuals of procedure, but I am advocating for a “boundary rider” approach;
Everyone has a leadership role, whether you are the Vice Chancellor or an Outreach Officer. Celebrate this and make each leader feel empowered to lead. Our people need to be empowered to make decisions which are within the level of responsibility or delegation for their position. Empowered people make decisions and solve problems in an innovative way, we call it: working to level. Too many times we see staff who are operating like a game show—they “ring a friend”, “ask the audience”, “delegate”, or “pass”.
Understand why they do this. If it is due to a lack of knowledge about their role, then train them; if it is a lack of capability to perform, then train them or move them to a better-suited role. If it is a fear of making a decision, then support them.
And stop the meetings. One person being confused is enough, replicating this exponentially does not help.
While empowered distributed leadership helps a lot, so does clear programme and activity structure. The flat management models work well when everyone understands the rules, knows the norms and the shared purpose and process is crystal clear. Anything less than this is a situation waiting to explode, erupting in boundary disputes.
Productivity is escalated when teams and individuals work to frameworks, models, and plans that define the outcomes, and specify the outputs required to deliver those outcomes. Furthermore, productivity requires performance expectations to be set and clarity regarding the inputs that are available to work with, for example, resources such as people or cash. This is basic program logic applied to all work.
To be fair to the maligned meetings, the constructive use of meetings and group collaboration is a powerful way of designing innovative project plans.
We have had countless examples where people, our warriors, shine when they know what was required of them. They understood their boundaries and were supported to lead, and consequently, their productivity skyrocketed. They were back playing in the passion-pit, saving the world.
If you have made a commitment to your people and you want to assist them to enjoy their work and be productive, ask them to track where and how they spend their time over a two-week period. This will give you the data to analyse where boundary problems exist. Do it for all staff and you will see the hidden stories of your team, and then you can truly enable their passion and full potential.
Saddle up and get out to those boundaries where confusion abounds and mend the fences and eject the strays.
Lesson 4: More outputs lead to happy staff and increases the chances of high-performance outcomes.
 W. S. Ramson (1988). The Australian National Dictionary. Oxford University Press.
 Furlong, G. T. (2010). The conflict resolution toolbox: Models and maps for analyzing, diagnosing, and resolving conflict. John Wiley & Sons.
If you would like to know more about how Applied Inspiration can assist your institution to design high-performance programmes please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.appliedinspiration.co.
Sean Johnson is a Managing Director of Applied Inspiration. He has portfolio responsibility for the Advisory Services. He has led the review and transformation projects with a number of universities based on a unique methodology drawing on his expertise in complex problem-solving. Sean was a former partner in one of Australia’s most prestigious law firms, a management consultant, an academic teaching conflict resolution, and previously held a number of senior leadership positions in professional services in higher education. Sean is a very dynamic leader and strategist.