Boundary objects: How do you bridge different worlds of thought?

You learn at the edge of your knowledge.

To solve complex problems you have to look beyond your own area of expertise.

That is called boundary crossing. The term comes from the educational sciences.

In organizations boundaries take different shapes

Think about the differences in orientation between R&D and the sales teams. Or between specialists and experts by experience in healthcare.

When our thought worlds diverge it is difficult to share knowledge.

It is not easy to step outside the frame of your own mind

You developed your knowledge in the context of your work. It helps you to assess a situation. Someone else interprets the situation from his or her own context.

How can you work together effectively when you need knowledge from different disciplines?

That is when a boundary object can help

A boundary object is something specific you work on together. It can by anything: a database to collect information, a prototype of a technical product or a sketch of a business model on a whiteboard.

People can relate to it from their own discipline

It helps them to address what they know about the issue and what they worry about. Because you work on the object together you develop a shared language and you understand each other better.

During a meeting we often use a flipover for that purpose

You note down the most important points and people add their views. At the end of a session you take a picture of the sheets. And maybe you use them as input for a report.

But you can do more.

How do you use your flipover to think more effectively as a group?

With the paper as a platform to:

  • Collect knowledge that is distributed over different organizations.
  • Explore diverging perspectives when you do not understand each other.
  • Develop new knowledge when current approaches do not work.

In other words: How do you turn your flipover into a boundary object?

In this pdf you find 3 ways to do that

I hope it helps you to move effectively across boundaries.

Are you stuck? Or do you want to explore other ways to visualize complex issues?

I am happy to have a look together.


How do you map out a wicked issue, without getting stuck?

You should not overcomplicate things.

But going for a quick fix gets in the way if things are complicated.

A plan from A to B is counterproductive: A is ambiguous and B is unpredictable.

When you focus on a goal it is harder to notice what is going on and to see what works.

A wicked issue needs an approach that does justice to its complexity

But how do you get a shared view on what is needed, without bogging down?

It helps if your thinking does not linger in your head

Or in words in the air.

See if you can get the complexity of an issue on the table, I mean literally. That allows you to look at it together, explore different elements and the connections between them.

How do you do that?

There are countless ways. Try a mind map or a metaphor. Move around circles in a causal diagram or draw out a system to explore its viability.

You organize your thoughts on paper

Here is the visual grammar to help you to do that:

We are not used to shaping our thinking on paper. Maybe you occasionally scribble something down to get it clear. And sometimes people draw a few blocks with arrows on a whiteboard.

But how do you think visually in interaction?

In order to see different perspectives next to each other. So you can elaborate on them, compare them, connect them.

That is where many people experience a barrier. That barrier is formed by how we look at thinking and visualizing.

Our ideas on thinking and visualizing are outdated

4 misunderstandings are in the way of visual thinking in interaction:

A lot of people hesitate to pick up a marker, because they think they cannot draw. But an awkward drawing is good. People do not dare to touch it when it is too polished.

Rough sketches invite people to think along

And a loose first draft lowers the threshold for others to add something to it.

Drawing talent can even get in the way. It increases the temptation to make your sketch look beautiful, while the matter you want to put down on paper is messy.

We want coherence, clarity, resolution. But exploration stops when you are too focused on a result.

It is the stuff that comes up in the process that is important. The questions that you don’t know how to answer, the dilemmas, you put them all down on paper.

The value is in the iteration

You can even move ahead when your drawing looks like spaghetti. Make a new version. What are the core elements? Where are the difficulties? Which patterns do you see?

A sketch is not the result of your thinking. Sketching is thinking in itself.

When you juggle with lines and frames you use another language to think

And that opens up other lines of thought. When you make a bullet list, you immediately have the tendency to make it right. Putting it down spatially in a concept map forces you out of the linear thinking pattern. It allows you to move in other directions.

We look for the ultimate structure, the concept or model that fits it all. But there are endless ways. Every visual structure show you a different aspect of the issue.

When you try out different structures you get to know the subject better

You can put different frameworks next to each other. That shows you the multiplicity of the subject. And it makes different perspectives easier to handle.

In summary: You create a thinking space on paper

That is where you can look at a question without immediately having to answer it. To explore it in depth and to get to a workable essence.

You already have the skills to think visually

You just have to start using them and see what happens when you do that. This pdf with visual thinking tips helps you on the way:

And otherwise you find extra instruction in this free crash course in visual thinking.

We can also do a visual sparring session on a question that puzzles you. Than we map it out together and explore it in different visual structures.

At least make sure you do not explore endlessly

At some point you have to do something: The only way to get to know a wicked issue is by working on it.