People’s behavior is often remarkably untouched by commands, rules, and systems. Lateral techniques—formal and informal meetings, task forces, coordinating roles, matrix structures, and networks—pop up to fill the void. Lateral forms are typically less formal and more flexible than authority-bound systems and rules. They are often simpler and quicker as well.
Formal gatherings and informal exchanges are the cornerstone of lateral coordination. All organizations have regular meetings. Boards confer to make policy. Executive committees gather to make strategic decisions. In some government agencies, review committees (sometimes known as “murder boards”) convene to examine proposals from lower levels. Formal meetings provide a lion’s share of lateral harmonization in relatively simple, stable organizations—for example, a railroad with a predictable market, a manufacturer with a stable product, or a life insurance company selling standard policies.
But informal contacts and exchanges are vital to take up slack and glue things together in fast-paced, turbulent environments. Pixar, the animation studio whose series of hits has included Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Cars, relies on a constant stream of informal connections among managers and engineers in its three major groups. Technologists develop graphic tools, artists create stories and pictures, and production experts knit the pieces together in the final film. “What makes it all work is [Pixar’s] insistence that these groups constantly talk to each other. So a producer of a scene can deal with the animator without having to navigate through higher-ups” (Schlender, 2004, p. 212).
As organizations become more complex, the demand for lateral communication mushrooms. Additional face-to-face coordination devices are needed. Task forces assemble when new problems or opportunities require collaboration of diverse specialties or functions. High-technology firms rely heavily on project teams or task forces to synchronize the development of new products or services.
Coordinating roles or units use persuasion and negotiation to help others dovetail their efforts. These are essentially boundary-spanners, individuals or groups with diplomatic status who are artful in dealing across specialized turfs. For example, a product manager in a consumer goods company, responsible for the performance of a laundry detergent or low-fat snack, has what is primarily a coordinating role, spending much of the day pulling together functions essential to the product’s success: research, manufacturing, marketing, and sale