As the world becomes more complex and interdependent, is the concept of boundaries still important? If it is then how do you manage them?

This post explores the relevance of boundaries in an increasingly complex world. Over the next two months we will examine what are some key organizational boundaries that managers need to establish, and how they can consciously evolve these boundaries as the external environment changes.

Are Boundaries Necessary?

You might argue that boundaries are becoming irrelevant in the face of such factors as global competition and 24/7 technology. You might say that defining limits is futile because everyone and everything is even more interconnected than these recent trends suggest – a view held not only by contemporary physicists, biologists, and systems thinkers but also by many spiritual traditions.

However, this world of infinite complexity actually demands that we both respect and set limits. Many people fail to understand that living systems naturally balance forces for growth with forces that maintain stability. If we push too hard on growth forces, then other forces will emerge that compensate for and ultimately undermine the growth we seek – a principle known as Compensating Feedback or “resistance to change.”

Stability is an essential characteristic of living systems because unrestrained growth, whether it comes in the form of cancer or irresponsible capitalism, kills life. For example, if we view the world as a machine that we can control to produce ever-increasing material wealth, we ignore natural limits at our peril.

We are also limited by our own time and energy. Our limited time and energy require us to make choices. Choices define our identity as distinct from the world around us. We determine who we are and who we are not, what is important to us and what is not, and where we can have the greatest positive impact. We make wise choices based on our aspirations, our values, and our best insights into not only what is needed but also why things operate as they do now.

When we accept these external and internal limits, we can actually work creatively with them to make a positive difference. From a systems perspective, we can:

  • Learn to work effectively with forces that spur growth and those that constrain it.
  • Use systems analysis to answer a specific question instead of trying to comprehend an entire system. We can develop more effective strategies to solve a particular problem or achieve a certain goal when we inquire deeply into why we have been unable to do so often despite our best efforts.
  • View ourselves as continuous learners instead of absolute knowers. We and the larger systems we are part of benefit from always asking what is needed, what we want to contribute, what we think we know, and what the larger world is telling us.

Not only do we as individuals need to work with limits, but organizations also need to recognize and establish boundaries in order to be effective. Boundaries focus an organization’s limited resources so that it can thrive in its external environment. The boundaries are created by managerial choices and then refined by external pressures and opportunities. Organizations are especially challenged to define and hold clear boundaries as these pressures and opportunities increase. Organizations will miss significant threats and opportunities if they fix their boundaries too rigidly and fail to learn from external inputs. They will dilute their resources if they relax their boundaries too much in order to pursue opportunities that exceed their capacity.

In summary:

  • This world of infinite complexity demands that we both respect and set limits
  • When we accept these external and internal limits, we can actually work creatively with them to make a positive difference
  • Not only do we as individuals need to work with limits, but organizations also need to recognize and establish boundaries in order to be effective


[1] The Living Company, Arie De Gues, Longview Publishing, 1997

[2] See for example The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, Peter Senge, et al, Doubleday, 1994