#29: On boundary objects

Marcel Proust and facilitating voyages of shared discovery.

I’m Luke Craven; this is another of my weekly explorations of how systems thinking and complexity can be used to drive real, transformative change in the public sector and beyond. The first issue explains what the newsletter is about; you can see all the issues here.

Hello, dear reader,

tl;dr: Marcel Proust said some stuff about the incompleteness of perception that has helped me understand the role that boundary objects might play in helping us respond to organisational complexity. This piece is itself an incomplete set of thoughts...!

It is often said that the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in looking with new eyes. This phrase, commonly attributed to Marcel Proust, is a simple provocation about the partiality of perspective. All explanations are incomplete, and incomplete in different ways, but we lack a shared set of practices to help us sit with and walk through that completeness as partners in a shared sense-making process.

What I love most about this quote is that the original—what Proust actually said—is a unique window into the scale of the challenge of incompleteness. It originally appeared in Proust’s seven-volume work, Remembrance of Things Past (or In Search of Lost Time). The quotation is a paraphrase of text in volume 5—The Prisoner—originally published in French, in 1923, and first translated into English by C. K. Moncrief.

In Chapter 2 of The Prisoner, the narrator is commenting at length on art, rather than travel. Listening for the first time to a work by the composer Vinteuil, he finds himself transported not to a physical location, but to a wonderful “strange land” of the composer’s own making. “Each artist,” he decides, “seems thus to be the native of an unknown country, which he himself has forgotten.” He continues:

But is it not the fact then that from those elements, all the real residuum which we are obliged to keep to ourselves, which cannot be transmitted in talk, even by friend to friend, by master to disciple, by lover to mistress, that ineffable something which makes a difference in quality between what each of us has felt and what he is obliged to leave behind at the threshold of the phrases in which he can communicate with his fellows only by limiting himself to external points common to us all and of no interest, art, the art of a Vinteuil like that of an Elstir, makes the man himself apparent, rendering externally visible in the colours of the spectrum that intimate composition of those worlds which we call individual persons and which, without the aid of art, we should never know? A pair of wings, a different mode of breathing, which would enable us to traverse infinite space, would in no way help us, for, if we visited Mars or Venus keeping the same senses, they would clothe in the same aspect as the things of the earth everything that we should be capable of seeing. The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is.

Incompleteness, on my reading of Proust, is not just about about the magnitude of strange lands on offer, nor about the diversity of how they are experienced, but about the complexity of perception itself and what that means for how we might collectively make sense of the world around us. I’m sure that a strange land is possible in which we would all have access to the tools and practices to help us respond to the challenge of incompleteness, but I, for one, have not come across it yet.

In moving to a new role in the ATO I have had the opportunity to reflect on what I enjoy about the different jobs I find myself in. What I've come to recognise as core to my practice is the challenge of taking an extraordinarily complex, integrated, incomplete problem and wrapping my arms around it conceptually in a way that helps and empowers practitioners to actually do things about it. At one level, that sounds very complicated, but it really isn’t. Wherever I am, I find myself primarily animated by one of two tasks:

  1. Creating boundary objects that help diverse groups sit with and walk through complexity.

  2. Creating spaces where others are supported to come together to create those same boundary objects for themselves.

For those that aren’t familiar, a boundary object is an artefact (thing, concept, discourse, process, etc.) that can hold a diversity of incomplete perspectives and enable communication and collaboration amongst those stakeholders despite that incompleteness.1 They may be abstract or concrete. They have different meanings in different contexts but their structure is common enough across contexts to make them recognisable means of translation. The creation and management of boundary objects is key in developing and maintaining coherence across a set of intersecting but necessarily incomplete perspectives.

In building my own boundary objects and enabling others to do the same, I have become increasingly infatuated with Etienne Wenger’s work on communities of practice and the characteristics that enable particular artefacts to act as boundary objects. According to Wegner, the artefacts we yearn for should embody these four characteristics.

  1. Modularity: each perspective can attend to one specific portion of the boundary object (e.g., a newspaper is a heterogeneous collection of articles that has something for each reader).

  2. Abstraction: all perspectives are served at once by deletion of features that are specific for each perspective (e.g., a map abstracts from the terrain only certain features, such as distance and elevation).

  3. Accommodation: the boundary object lends itself to various activities (e.g., the office building can accommodate the various practices of its tenants, its caretakers, its owners, and so forth).

  4. Standardisation: the information contained in a boundary object is in a prespecified form so that each constituency knows how to deal with it locally (for example, a questionnaire that specified how to provide some information by answering certain questions).

Of course, boundary objects are not a solution to making sense of our world across a set of diverse and mutually incomplete perspectives, but I hold them dear is one tool in our arsenal. I’d be curious to hear from people that use boundary objects as an explicit concept in their own work: How do they support you as a systems practitioner? What elements of the concept do you find limiting? What other opportunities do we have to deal with the challenge of completeness? If you have emerging answers to questions like these, as ever, please don’t be a stranger.

By the way: This newsletter is hard to categorise and probably not for everyone—but if you know unconventional thinkers who might enjoy it, please share it with them.

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Find me elsewhere on the web at www.lukecraven.com, on Twitter @LukeCraven, on LinkedIn here, or by email at <luke.k.craven@gmail.com>.