Organisation Design: Boundaries and Linkages

Last week I was discussing boundaries and linkages with someone. She wanted info on them.  Digging into my files I found a guide on this I’d written a couple of years ago with a colleague (Judith Collins) that I’ve extracted from and adapted below.


One approach to organisation design recommends starting with the work rather than the people, asking the questions: What is the purpose of the organisation (why is it in business?). What is the business strategy that will deliver the ‘why’? What are the key work processes and activities necessary to deliver the purpose and strategy?

Having answered these questions, you then map the high-level work activities per process. The next step is to look across and within these to identify how the activities might best be clustered and those clusters eventually form the basis of a high-level organisation design.

This approach makes visible how inextricably linked much of the work is – it’s pretty easy to find reasons to put activity together into one team or unit. The hard part is being confident about why we are dividing/allocating work and work activities between teams.  In dividing/allocating the work between teams you are automatically creating a boundary. (Note: I use making a cup of tea exercise to illustrate and practice this. You scale up the process flow from one cup of tea, to forty, to four hundred to four thousand, add in coffee …)

Often boundaries and linkages develop almost by accident and sometimes boundaries are perceived rather than real. But given any organisation design is only as good as the design of the boundaries and linkages, it’s essential that they are thought about and designed in. Otherwise you risk unintended consequences e.g. activity duplicated, work process break-down, conflict over accountability, and so on.


A boundary occurs during a work flow where something is handed over, where accountability is split or you reach a decision point or a compliance requirement.  It denotes the edge of a role or responsibility. At a boundary something needs to happen for the work to be continued or completed. A “chuck it over the fence” approach doesn’t work.

You will always need boundaries e.g. between the work of units, teams and individuals. Having as few as makes sense and making the linkages between them effective and efficient will minimise handovers and double handling and (usually) help improve the customer experience.

Culture, power and politics may all impact the effectiveness of the boundaries. All can lead to different perceptions and assumptions about whether a boundary exists and the action that is taken in response. Thus, there should be understanding of and agreement to boundaries to ensure there aren’t any black holes for work to drop through. Note: boundaries may not be static. They may evolve over time as the work and the organisation changes.

The best way to identify boundaries is to use your workflow for the high-level design and process maps as you work up the detailed design. Number each boundary so you can discuss and record what linking mechanism you will use for each. This need not be too onerous as many of the linkages you need will already be in place and providing they don’t need to change in your new organisation design, you only need to confirm that they are still fit for purpose.

You can then focus on boundaries where you don’t already have linkages or where the linkage needs to change.  There’s more on boundaries in a useful article by Rob Cross et al. A bridge too far?  How boundary spanning networks drive organizational change and effectiveness.


A linkage is activity that enables work to flow across a boundary. In the book Organizational Linkages: Understanding the Productivity Paradox, the authors say, ‘One of the open systems principles is that ‘changes in one part of the larger system will have reverberating effects on other parts of the system.  The intensity of the reverberations depends on the closeness or tightness of the linkage between the changed element and other elements in the system. Thus, in loosely coupled systems, changes in one subsystem can be relatively isolated from the larger system. In tightly coupled systems, however, a small change in any subsystem will yield changes elsewhere in the system through reciprocating linkages. Landing a jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier is an example of a tightly coupled system. In this system the smallest deviations in speed of the ship, list of the ship, wind direction, speed of the jet, altitude of the approach, and so forth have great consequences for performance—the safe landing of the jet. Conversely, providing a professor in a university with a personal computer and word processing software may be very loosely linked to university performance, even if the professor is more “productive.” ‘

The graphic heading this piece, identifies six features of types of linking mechanism. The more formal mechanisms are normally more robust and bring greater prescription and control. But they are also more expensive to implement and maintain. So think about what type of linkage will most effectively span the boundaries, taking into account how critical each boundary or handover point is to the outcomes your organisation is seeking to achieve.

For any linkage to be effective there needs to be the resources and will to make it work. You can strengthen all linkages by social and cultural means, personal networks, interdepartmental events. Linkages can be weakened by personal or political agendas, assumptions, pre-conceptions, custom and practice.

Eleven Questions about Linkages and Enablers

  • Do you know where all your boundaries are?
  • Is the boundary recognised by all the parties?
  • Are the boundaries creating a black hole, gap, or insurmountable barriers?
  • Where there is currently a boundary do you need to remove it, leave it, or change it?
  • Where on the features scale – see graphic (high/low) do your linkages need to be?
  • Is the boundary/linkage agreed and workable by all parties?
  • Is the linkage proportionate in terms of effort and cost of both implementing and maintaining it?
  • Should the boundary/linkage have a shelf life?
  • Have your boundaries/linkages got the support of all the parties involved?
  • How can you foster social connection to enable the boundaries/linkages to work?
  • Are you designing external boundaries/linkages e.g. with suppliers as well as internal boundaries/linkages?

How often do you review boundaries and linkages in your organisation?  Let me know.