wicked problems

Welcome back! In the next two posts, I’ll be exploring the reasons why we need borderless leaders.

I’m going to divide my ‘justification’ into two parts. The first part, below, will look at the external drivers for borderlessness, and the second will explore the reasons why we ourselves have begun to – and should  – desire  borderless lives and a borderless world.

There are at least five primary drivers towards a borderless world.


The first,quite obviously, is globalisation.  Global interconnectivity has put diversity and geographical agility at the heart of organisational activities. It has meant that organisations have had to dramatically rethink not only their geographical scope, but equally their geographical locations, as the centre of the economic world has irreversibly shifted from the United States and Europe to Asia, and innovation, talent, technology and knowledge flows have become multi-directional.

Superstructured organisations

Relatedly, we are beginning to see “superstructuring” in a diverse number of sectors: the creation of structures and processes which exceed anything gone before in size and complexity. Driven by new social technologies which leverage collective intelligence, superstructured organisations are able to foster collaboration and delivery at much larger scales than previously thought possible. Educational content platforms like Udemy and Futurelearn are able to aggregate content in smarter, more customisable ways than traditional universities, for example. Science games such as Genes In Space have enabled citizen scientists to gather information about cancer cells faster and in greater details than large research teams.

Superstructured organisations throw dominant organisations of today into relief, showing them for what they are: products of twentieth-century thinking when specialisation and narrow access to expertise were king.The principle of superstructuring exemplifies the power of borderlessness too, showing what is possible when traditional organisational architectures are bypassed.

Smart machines and systems

The clear division between robots and humans are already breaking down. According to one estimate, low-skilled jobs are on a crash course for obsolescence, with 10.8 million jobs – or a third of the adult UK workforce – potentially at risk from automation. Smart machines are likely to spell the end of entire occupations, such as librarianship and administration. Automation will ultimately force us to question what it is that humans are uniquely good at. Robotic technologies, will also, however, force us to explore how machines can augment and complement human capabilities (including our creative capacities).

Dissolving distinctions between employees and entrepreneurs

More than ever in modern history, boundaries between the employee and the entrepreneur have also started to blur.

A  willingness to trade security for autonomy  and self-expression means that many young people are deciding  to own their own venture. Technological advances, such as e-commerce, have simultaneously dramatically lowered the entry barriers to business. We know that many will not survive, and, as a result, we are likely to see more people migrating between formal employment and entrepreneurship than ever before.

Relatedly, as more and more of us find ourselves driven by mission rather than financial security, we are less likely to place as high a value either on specific types of work (those which were historically prestigious), or our ranking in organisational  hierarchies. A mission-driven approach to work means it is the purpose of the work, and the alignment of professional with personal identities – rather than its prestige –  where meaning is derived.

A  final driver for the dissolution of working boundaries has been extreme competition between organisations, putting the accent on innovation and risk taking at all levels. As a result, intrapreneurship has become ever more prized, as organisations, mainly in the prize sector, are dependent on internal innovation, and as employees seek to expres their entreprenuerial characters as employees.

Global challenges

Above all, we live in an era of borderless problems. All wicked problems are essentially borderless: those whose complexity defy any one disciplinary lens and necessitate multi-stage and multi-actor interventions. 

Equally, there is no single lever of change which will solve borderless problems. Take climate change as one evident example. Legislation, regulation, social movements, new technologies and behaviour change are all parts of an essential mix, but are insufficient in isolation. It is only when these are harnessed in tandem that we stand to have a hope of finding long term, sustainable solutions to such global challenges.

The reality is, as David Ellwood, Dean of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government has realised, “all the interesting problems cross boundaries. Some straddle disciplines. Some require co-operation between business, government, academia and non-profit groups. So you have to train people to cross boundaries.”

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