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  • Dr. Faye Lambert

Successfully Managing White Space in Organisations: An Ontological Perspective

Dr. Faye Lambert

Working within our own teams is challenging enough; however, working across the boundaries, whether these be defined by departments, functions, divisions or with stakeholders beyond the organisation, presents another level of complexity.

I wonder if the following description of cross-boundary projects resonates with you?

Projects across boundaries in our place are problematic. We can’t seem to identify precisely why they are so fraught, and have been unable to penetrate the murky state of affairs in which miscommunication seems to be repeated, regardless of the level of goodwill on ‘either side’. We are at a loss to address the issues in a timely way – we just don’t seem to be able to capitalise on the expertise of those who are sitting ‘over the fence’ and we can only wonder at the lost opportunities...

I suspect there are at least three fundamental reasons why this seemingly impenetrable murky state of affairs occurs in cross-boundary projects:

  • The networks and accountabilities required for them to work are poorly defined at the outset, if defined at all (Stata,1995)

  • There is no shared understanding or ‘practice’ for coordination of action, and in particular, a lack of explicit recognition of how the roles of ‘customer’ and ‘provider’ shift across the life of the project.

  • There is the failure to declare the ‘breakdowns’ when these inevitably occur.

Zolli and Healy (2012) have referred to cross-boundary projects as those which occur in the ‘white spaces’ of organisations - between the lines on the organisational chart and beyond company boundaries. Their research suggests that strong relationships and effective coordination of action in the white spaces is where the potential for organisational resilience and creativity resides. Ironically, it is here where there seems so much fertile ground for misunderstanding, frustration and inefficiency. The consequences of such projects that ‘go wrong’ are often disastrous. Relationships and morale suffer, with sometimes devastating implications for organisational performance.

It is precisely in these cross-boundary projects that insights from the field of ontology have so much to offer. They provide us with the means to navigate our way through the fragile nature of much of the work done in the white spaces.

Cross-boundary projects typically require research, planning, design and innovation. In these circumstances, the more traditional, mechanistic quality practices fail: it is difficult to delineate the outcomes up-front; implementation does not necessarily follow a neat linear process; and the players are often cognitively and culturally diverse (compare, for example, IT staff working with HR staff). Those who attempt to apply a mechanistic paradigm to such initiatives court disaster (Harris & Taylor: 1997). The assumption that the parameters can be set up front and remain unchanged can result in what Sull & Spinosa (2005) describe as “radio silence”; players feel that, after initial project discussions, they can stop communicating and simply “get to work”, disregarding the need for renegotiation over time. At the end of the project, there is no conversation regarding customer satisfaction, leaving the organisation susceptible to unmet needs and standards not reached, resulting in longer-term and often widespread, reputational damage.

At the heart of ontological work is the recognition of the need for a continuing process of making and managing commitments across the life of these projects. However, its immense contribution is that it makes this process explicit or, as Dunham (1997) suggests, ‘operationally crisp’. The coordination process is captured in a model sometimes referred to as the “atom of work”. The model makes a clear distinction between the role of “customer” and “performer”. It stresses the importance of key stakeholders understanding which roles they are playing as the project progresses. The four quadrants that make up the atom of work are characterised by a range of different kinds of conversations and involve a series of important linguistic distinctions. The four quadrants are as follows:

  • Preparation and Planning involving conversations for clarity.

  • Negotiating a Commitment involving conversations for coordination of action, and in particular, a range of speech acts which include requests, offers, promises and commitments.

  • Performance or Delivery in which commitments are managed.

  • Evaluation involving conversations for appreciation and accountability (Sieler, 2013).

Central to the model is the premise that, if commitments are broken, trust is eroded and relationships cease.

Of particular value is the work of Sull and Spinosa (2007) in identifying the conditions which support the keeping of commitments. Promises, they claim, need to be public, actively negotiated by the key stakeholders, voluntary, made explicit and grounded in a shared understanding of what is at stake. However, in the high performing teams that I have worked in and observed, there is an added dimension – a commitment to each other’s success. Under these circumstances, team members go beyond the contractual arrangements of the project as defined by the promises made, and do whatever it takes to achieve the outcome.

The field of ontology provides a way through the mire of complexities inherent in cross-boundary work. With training, it is possible to embed a shared code of practice or ‘discipline’ within the organisation that assists in navigating the commitments and building relationships. The success of this process is heavily dependent on the actions of those in senior leadership. In particular, leaders need to:

  • fully embrace the linguistic distinctions in making and managing commitments, actively modelling them for their teams;

  • accept the notion that, despite their hierarchical status, they too at different times, play the role of “provider” responsible for delivering timely, quality information to others to allow the project to progress;

  • be prepared to declare the breakdowns in a timely way. Inevitably, the unexpected will occur and if the breakdowns are not declared, organisational waste occurs and possibilities for improvement cannot be identified; and

  • meet their own commitments. If the leader fails in this endeavor, trust, team commitment and relationships will be eroded.

And so we return to where we started... cross-boundary work can be fragile and challenging.

If organisations are to capitalise on the potential for resilience and creativity found in within the white spaces of cross-boundary initiatives, they would be well-advised to seek to understand and draw upon the field of ontology. Ontological perspectives enable us to make explicit, the dynamics of coordinating action with others and remind us that improving organisational performance is all about maintaining and building quality relationships.


Dunham, R. (1997) Self-Generated Competitive Innovation with the Language-Action Approach, Center for Quality of Management Journal, Fall.

Harris, G.B., & Taylor, S. (1997) Escaping from the Box: Using a New Process Model to Support Participation and Improve Coordination, Centre for Quality of Management Journal, Vol. 6. No. 3, Winter.

Sieler, A. (2013), Advanced Ontological Practitioner Program, Newfield Conversational Technology, Newfield Institute.

Stata, R. A. (1995) Conversation about Conversations: Analog device CEO on Building High Performance Organisations, CEO Analog Devices, Center for Quality of Management Journal, Winter.

Sull, D.N. & Spinosa, C. (2005) Using Commitments to Manage Across Units, MIT Sloan Management Review, Fall Vol. 47. No. 1

Sull, D.N, & Spinosa, C. (2007) Promise-Based Management: The Essence of Execution, Harvard Business Review, April pp 6-9

Zolli & Healy (2012) Resilience: Why things bounce back, Headline Publishing Group, UK.

Watch an informative presentation [YouTube] by Nicky Howe on details of the Making and Managing Commitments framework

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