May 8, 2012

Are You Gatekeeping or Boundary Spanning?

In a more traditional approach to conducting business, there were a lot of walls. Valuable information, experience, trusted connections… these and those who had knowledge of them were to be protected at all costs. They were kept safely and jealously out of sight in a firm’s ivory palaces, literally scrupulously guarded. The person appointed to screen all those who dared request audience was known as a “gatekeeper”: a human filter, qualifying or vetting the applicant and their cause. An assistant, a secretary, an aide. These trusty coadjutants would stop the threat or nuisance at the door, staying the course and preventing the adulteration of mission.

Times have changed. There is a more participatory mindset underpinning many undertakings these days: connections, communications, and collaborations are the order of the day. A rising tide lifts all boats; alliances are sought and joint ventures are launched. The definition of a gatekeeper has evolved in tandem, in a positive manner. Rather than slamming the door shut, the gatekeeper functions now as an enabler, an expediter… manning the openings between departments, companies, and disciplines; funneling information to those who might otherwise be isolated or unaware of a useful bit of knowledge or an insight or ability held by another. The gaps in the fences are now sought after and encouraged; they act as feeds, rather than filters.

A new and more appropriate term has arisen which goes beyond the stigma of narrow-mindedness and control. It’s called “boundary-spanning”—it sums up the intent succinctly. A boundary spanner looks for opportunity and mutual benefit. They straddle separations of perception and bridge dissociation. While walls and fences may define and protect, they may also act as veils and blinders, fostering opacity instead of enlightenment, or becoming a giant echo chamber of self-reinforcement.  This effect can occur internally in an organization just as easily as in the world at large.

Change happens at the intersections; this is where dynamic progress occurs. When cultures, generations, and disciplines cross-pollinate, new things become possible. Those who look for these potentialities are building bridges; they are change agents. In the natural world, we see a strong correlation with this phenomenon of a middle ground stimulating, indeed nurturing, possibility. Where the sea meets the land, the estuaries provide an incredibly rich nursery for marine life, from plankton to shellfish and finfish, the tidal marshes providing safety and nutrient exchange and feeding the bottom of the food chain. On land, where ecosystems meet, a similar situation is apparent. The hedgerows or undergrowth where forest meets cleared land are a hotbed of activity and diversity. Often these generic biome areas are surprisingly sparse in their biodiversity, but where the two overlap, there is an immediate proliferation of change in species, their numbers, their interactions, and their complexity. This borderland has fascinated naturalists since Gilbert White and his Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789), long held to be the fourth most published book in the English language!

We often find ourselves resisting change; this is instinctual and motivated by self-preservation. And it works – until it doesn’t. We might find it useful to cultivate an attitude of curiosity, consideration, and collaboration. Span some boundaries; open some gates; be the change you would like to see. We try to take that approach here at Global Lighting.  Make some new friends, have some fun and learn something new! Are you gatekeeping or boundary spanning?

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