The Value of “Marginal Professionals”

Have you noticed that most of the action happens around the margins of things or across boundaries? Innovative products and medical breakthroughs often bridge biology and chemistry or electrical and mechanical disciplines; many of Medtronics’ products are prime examples. “Mashups” of musical recordings, digital technologies and art forms offer more examples. Intersections of cultures, traditions, tastes, geographical features and meteorological conditions also often yield positive results; think “Tex-Mex” cuisine, wine varietals or favorable winds for sailing when high and low pressure cells meet.

Just as medical breakthroughs, popular mashups and desirable blends of cultures, tastes and conditions occur at intersections or across boundaries, we know that diverse perspectives, opinions and ideas, even from seemingly rival or opposing camps, can be the source of novel and constructive ideas and solutions. Opposing forces or ideas cause friction, but we know that friction can also contribute to forward movement. Of course friction can also retard movement, as we so often witness with broken political processes or contentious relations across disciplines or camps in organizations.

What’s the difference between opposing forces or differences that contribute value versus those that merely divide? Often a critical factor is what I’ve come to think of as “marginal professionals” – those either not so deeply embedded in one camp or another that they cannot see other Boundaries merging arrows zuman.comperspectives, or those who at least have developed capacities for operating across margins or boundaries. In my work I often encounter friction between administration and faculty in educational settings or between administration and physicians in healthcare settings. There is always more constructive movement as professionals on one side of an issue demonstrate the capability of operating as “marginal professionals,” able to see both sides of an issue, translating one camp’s point of view for the other, seeking common ground vs. digging heels in, perhaps alternating “sides” and focusing on the best path forward vs. one side’s or another’s.

Other sometimes-hardened boundaries where marginal professionals can add value include those between sales and manufacturing, manufacturing and engineering or R&D, staff and line, corporate and field or merged entities. When I helped two large non-profits merge their organizations, one with operations primarily on the east side of a river and the other on its west, one savvy marginal professional put it this way: “Not east or west, but what’s best!” Marginal professionals like him are the boundary-spanners and bridges that facilitate a whole group moving forward together.

Boundaries are important, but also double-edged swords; they define what’s included and what’s not, but risk excluding what’s important outside our boundaries. We need mechanisms and professionals to build bridges and connections across boundaries that separate disciplines, professions, political camps and organizational silos. The renowned management theorist Rensis Likert promoted one such mechanism with his “linking pin” management model, stating that a key role of leaders is linking their organizational units up, down and across the organization with others.

Professor David Jamieson, head of the Organization Development and Learning department at the University of St. Thomas, is a model bridge builder or “maginal professionl;” he recently received the Academy of Management’s “Distinguished Scholar Practitioner” award for his efforts bridging academia and professional practice. A passion and life-long professional pursuit of David’s is better integration of academic and work worlds so they can learn and benefit from one another.

Professor Jamieson and I share the observation that there is also room for more integration and bridges across the boundaries that separate professions and professonal associations. We each belong to professional associations affiliated in some way with organization development, Boundaries ladder benefitspro.comhuman resource management, talent development, ethics and the cultivation of healthy organizational cultures; we believe that conversations and efforts would be enriched by efforts to make those association boundaries more permeable. I have encountered the same dynamics working with sub-specialty groups in physician practices, and recently had a conversation with a professional therapist about difficulties navigating the boundaries that separate associations of helping professionals. In all cases each professional group would be stronger individually and they would be stronger collectively by focusing more on the “ties that bind” across their boundaries than merely ties that bind within their boundaries. “Marginal professionals” that might be more loosely affiliated with any one group but that span multiple groups can be catalysts for that synergy.

How might you and organizations or groups that you know of benefit from “marginal professionals” and more permeable boundaries? Here are some strategies:

  • Beware of going it alone. Open-source and open R&D strategies have demonstrated the benefits of involving broader communities in creative efforts; how might you adopt similar strategies?
  • Cultivate and protect your “marginal professionals.” They will likely not identify as strongly with your particular group or its orthodoxy, but are probably your best candidates for connecting your group constructively with others and ideas on the outside.
  • Cultivate “marginal professional” capabilities – yours and others’. Key will be not identifying too readily, or so deeply with an approach or group that we cannot see other perspectives. Dialog, or true “learning conversations,” vs. debate or merely advocating one’s position too strongly is also critical.
  • Reach out to other groups, camps, professions or special interest groups; sponsor joint programs, work together on a cause and structure opportunities for regular exchanges.
  • Remember that there can be a dark side to permeable boundaries; factors and influences that at one time were far removed from our sphere could unknowingly become a threat. Competitive threats to traditional typewriters and to videotape / DVD rentals (‘remember those?) came from outside their traditional competitive markets and technologies.
  • Stay curious – about new or evolving groups and special interests and what can be learned from them.
  • Pay more attention to boundaries and what opportunities there might be on the margins – for blending resources or integrating technologies, ideas, efforts or organizations.
  • Focus more on the “ties that bind” you with other professions, groups and perspectives – your root purpose, common goals or interests, vs. only those that cement internal ties too tightly.

Boundaries are traditionally viewed as barriers that separate us from others and what’s outside. All will benefit if we are more open to viewing them as invitations to build bridges across those boundaries.

Boundaries and frontiers

“I teach in the Medical School, the School of Public Health, the Kennedy School of Government and the Business School. And it’s the best perch . . . because most of my work crosses boundaries.”

Michael Porter


“I like pushing boundaries.”

Lady Gaga


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Al Watts has 30 years of experience as an independent consultant helping leaders and organizations succeed by aligning people, systems and strategy. He is particularly skilled helping clients define strategic direction, identifying barriers to achieving goals, and helping boards, executive teams and diverse stakeholder groups craft shared commitments for growth.

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