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good fences make good neighbours

Healthy business relationships depend upon three important factors.
Boundaries between organizations or organization units should be well-drawn, both logical and clear.
Behaviour on both sides of the boundary should be respectful of the boundary, neither overstepping nor retreating.
The business partners should be authentic in relation to one another.

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Maintaining Relationships Means Maintaining Boundaries

veryard projects > boundaries > maintenance

Maintaining healthy business relationships demands attention to the following:
Agreeing an allocation of power, proximity and interest between negotiating parties.
Managing exchanges of knowledge/information and other resources across the boundary.
Managing joint activities, with fair shares of benefit, cost and risk.
Coordinating strategies, requirements and models.
Repair Engaging authentically with business partners across boundaries, to repair any actual or perceived insult or injury.

In some situations, there is a role for trusted third parties, including independent facilitators, conflict arbitors, guarantors and regulators.

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Logical Boundaries

veryard projects > boundaries > logical

Classical organization theory defines the boundary of an organization in terms of inport and export. The organization is a socio-technical system, taking in resources of various kinds (including information) and producing goods and services. The boundary is the "interface" between the organization and its environment.

One of the functions of such a boundary is that it acts as a kind of semi-permeable membrane, protecting the organization from much of the uncertainty in the environment. Managers coordinate and control what goes on inside the boundary, without responding to every little fluctuation outside. Without such a boundary, activities inside the organization would be wholly unpredictable and unorganized - in other words, there would be no organization.

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Organizations that maintain a double boundary

veryard projects > boundaries > double boundary

A mediaeval castle usually had an outer wall and an inner stronghold (known as the "keep"). When the community was under attack, the local peasants and livestock could gather inside the wall for protection. The noble family and a few privileged associates withdrew into the stronghold, so that they could be safe even if the outer wall was breached.

By giving some level of protection to the peasantry, the nobles increase the protection to themselves. In order for any attackers to reach the keep, they have to hack their way through a mass of other people first.

The modern corporation has a "lean and mean" core (equivalent to the noble family), plus a loose feudal community of contract workers, fools, freelance consultants and other outsorcerers (sic), which it will defend only if it feels like it. This community serves as a buffer, providing the "lean and mean" core with additional protection against the risks and anxieties of the outside world.

For a discussion of this from the perspective of organization risk and psychology, see Peter Marris, The Politics of Uncertainty, 1996, Chapter 7.

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Retreating from boundaries - the analytic model

veryard projects > boundaries > retreat

In his classic study of organizational behaviour, Larry Hirschhorn developed the following analytic model.
1 Organizations can function only when its managers draw and maintain appropriate boundaries between the organization and its environment, and between its different divisions and units. These boundaries determine where particular responsibilities and authorities begin and end. They represent a particular articulation of the organization's division of labour.
2 A boundary creates anxiety by signifying where the risk of working and deciding is located, and where aggression must be mobilized.
3 In responding to anxiety, people retreat from the boundary. The root of this anxiety is typically a compound of an estimate of the genuine risks being faced, the links connecting these risks and the inner fantasies of being rejected or destroyed, and a fear of mobilizing aggression lest it destroy others.
4 Much of an organization's process is directed toward managing the anxiety of working by systematically organizing the retreat from the boundary.
5 When people retreat from boundaries, they psychologically injure their co-workers.
6 By occupying task-appropriate roles and mastering task-appropriate skills, people may be able to stay at the boundary, because the inherent value in the work they do contains their fear of hurting others or being hurt in turn.
source: The Workplace Within, p 38.

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Retreating from boundaries - the symptoms

veryard projects > boundaries > symptoms

Dependency Mismatch of power, proximity and interest. Typically an individual or group has responsibility for achieving something, or has a requirement for something else, but lacks the authority or influence to make it happen.
Alienation Mismatch between objective interest and subjective interest. An individual or group behaves as something were not important.
Blame The "outside" is scapegoated or devalued, in some way to preserve the "inside".
Leakage Inappropriate transmission of knowledge or information. The boundary is too porous.
Secrecy Inappropriate retention of knowledge or information. The boundary is too impermeable.
Hesitation An individual or group possesses authority or influence or knowledge, but is reluctant to use it.
Abdication An individual or group renounces authority or influence or knowledge. Typically, this leads to a false culture of pseudo-democracy.


Two of the most important and interesting writers in this field, tackling similar topics from contrasting yet complementary perspectives, apparently unaware of one another's work: Larry Hirschhorn and Peter Marris.

Having previously read books by both authors, I acquired Reworking Authority and The Politics of Uncertainty at the same time, and read them in close succession. I'd advise others to do the same.

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Larry Hirschhorn

Hirschhorn is an expert on the unconscious culture of organizations, both as a management guru and as a practising management consultant.

He is one of the leading lights of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations (ISPSO), and some of his recent papers can be found in the ISPSO archive.

The Workplace Within: Psychodynamics of Organizational Life (1988)

An excellent book, combining valuable theoretical insights and practical experiences.  Useful for the reflective practitioner, while remaining clear and accessible for those unfamiliar with this way of looking at working life. If you only read one of his books, read this one. A classic.
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Larry Hirschhorn Reworking Authority: Leading and Following in the Post-Modern Organization (1997)

This book explores the psychological and interpersonal demands of the 'post-modern' organization, and argues for a social policy of forgiveness and 'second chances'.
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Peter Marris

Marris has spent several decades studying the ways people give meaning to their lives, especially under adversity. He is Emeritas Professor of Social Planning at UCLA.

I am willing to swap my spare copy of Loss and Change for a copy of Meaning and Action. Please email me.

The Politics of Uncertainty (1996)

In this book, Marris offers an analysis of socioeconomic risk, based on a combination of Marx and Bowlby. I was carried along by his moral indignation, but I need to take another look at his logical argument. Nonetheless, it provides a very interesting contrast to Larry Hirschhorn's 1997 book.
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This page last updated on November 5th, 1999 
Copyright © 1999 Veryard Projects Ltd

Extended quotation reproduced from Workplace Within by Larry Hirschhorn.
Copyright © 1988 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.