Managing Boundaries in Systems

Sections of this topic

    Organization Development is all about change in work systems. Everybody talks about systems but what does that mean? General Systems Theory is an organizational theory. It is integrative, in that it is a study of “wholeness” and it is interdisciplinary. It is based on a biological derivative it is a method of organizing complexity. (And you thought it was just a word). I have come to believe that we need a more sophisticated understanding of systems and this is first and foremost a way of seeing the world.

    Look around and you will see “systems” everywhere. The first thing you have to do is look for the boundaries. The boundary’s that encompass a team, like who is in and who is out, what is the purpose of the system and what are its boundaries? Information passes in and out through boundaries. Systems manage their boundaries, for better of for worse: too open boundaries threaten the system with a loss of identity, too tight and the systems tend to run down. All systems operate on a steady-state called homeostasis and they operate within norms and standards. There is a set performance level and gaining entry, as an outsider is tough because systems filter what’s plausible and realistic to them and who is not.

    For Example,

    Consider the internal consulting team where we developed, what we called our PWI Index. PWI was shorthand for a “perceived weirdness index”. What we recognized was that to cross the boundaries and be accepted as useful by the technology groups – you had to be enough like them, so they would allow you to cross the boundary and perhaps have influence upon them AND you had to be enough different to make a contribution. We were a pretty creative group, as people tend to be doing this work. The people in this consulting group were funny and they were irreverent. We knew in a trivial sense that crossing boundaries we had to put on different costumes. Working with the administrative groups, it was all suits and Land’s End; working with the lab folks (where the real work was happening) it was sneakers, sometimes without socks. A wise man once said to me that to do this work required social sensitivity and behavioral flexibility. You have to be astute in sensing the social norms and flexible enough to cross boundaries and not lose yourself.


    For more resources, see the Library topics Consulting and Organizational Development.


    Jim Smith has over 40 years of organization development experience in a wide range of organizations. He can be reached at Or