How do we do that?
ILANA: What lies in the shadow of the statue? RICHARD: Ille qui nos omnes servabit (the one who will save us all).
Idolatry casts a long shadow over the field of organisational insight – how people work together. The hope is to glean some kind of system divined from science to ‘get the most out of people', ‘near perfect knowledge transfer capacity’ and ‘scale without limits and complexity' by every favourite metric from profit to delivery time to psychometric tests. The general trend is that organising gets harder as the number of people increases with greater inefficiencies and redundancies, factions – sometimes much earlier than you’d think – and strategy diluted by the very channels and org chart used to disseminate information mono-directionally as bureaucracy grows and back-channels thrive like wild grasses. This is not limited to one sector, with private, public and informal organisations all suffering from the same ‘scale issues’.
The spotlight is on organisations where the gap between what they say and what they do grows larger, and with the ongoing auction for top talent who have the option of making more money as freelancers/temps than in in-house roles where continuous improvement (learning and thriving) really happens.
There is no copy and paste for organising, and ‘change’ is an inherent part of every organisation’s development at every stage with its own specific flavour. But we like the comfort of copy and paste of things that have worked before. How-to guides and process maps are trafficked and pedaled through MBA programmes, short courses, strategy consultancies and ‘reputable’ publications from HBR to the fire pit of LinkedIn.
As I’ve led people, it’s always nail-bitingly obvious how easily a model falls flat in a new environment with different assumptions, incentives and – simply put – people.
These idols (trends) cast the longest shadows:
I. Elevating Terms
Using aspirational language about the current and future state of an organisation, where context collapses and there’s no room for change because the desired end-state has already arrived, because the language has. “We’re a high performing team” without the outcomes and results to show for it, and burnt-out heroes.
You will see elevated terms every day of your working life hiding in plain sight. Enterprises, Communities, Teams, Partners, Leaders are elevated euphemisms for Organisations/Businesses, Channels, Groups/Couples, and Bosses/Managers/Individuals. Not all organisations are enterprises, not all groups of people are teams, not all couples are partners and not all managers are leaders. Nor should they want to carry the weight of these terms.
We know the feeling when a company asserts that they are the only relevant player in a market (i.e. they span the enterprise), when we feel like we're the only one putting out fires and when our bosses think they're so inspiring (hero moves in a dysfunctional group). Teams and Partners comprise people who really depend on each other to create more than the sum of their parts, especially when the work requires an interdisciplinary, deliberative approach to solving the unknown. Leaders can harness potential and lead people to places they want to go that they can't alone, this can often mean leading people out the door to better places if that’s what’s best for them.
II. Confusing Division of Labour and Teaming
We hold two conflicting ideals in management science. The first that the best person for the job should do the job and the second that teams drive outsized performance.
Division of Labour (Taylorism) is the idea that work can be understood and scoped (from above) to create commodified, discrete roles like Junior Worker, Senior Worker, etc. that fulfill the job description entirely, and ascend through the ranks by individual excellence and efficiency in that well-defined role. This measurement allows us to determine who is best and who should be rewarded. It’s very factory, and only works best in the functional area that an organisation is good at (i.e. building cars in car business, not HR in a car business).
(High Performance) Teaming was popularised in the 1980s. It proposes that the most ambiguous and unknown problems must be collectively framed by a diversity of experts in subject matter and lived experiences, in order to then be solved interchangeably by any combination of team members. The team composition, balance and dynamics are necessarily fragile and require high psychological safety, transparency of information and incentives for collective over individual gain. Not every group of people can operate at this level and the setup required is very resource intensive.
These two models collide when tradition meets modernity in amendments to an established hierarchy built on division of labour. This is often what’s called “acting like a startup” (or Spotify). The most common theme is a lean/agile transformation where the mechanics of teaming are added on top of the existing model. In practice, it sets people up to fail, with little incentive to progress, inefficiency and damage to self-esteem due to the complacency/hubris that everyone can do everything while experts are left in a ‘heroic’ position to clean up the mess. By removing the explicit job function, we lose our ability to discern who’s the right fit for a task or for the team. By making every task a team one with capacity limits, we double down on speed over quality, the ‘move fast and break things.’
III. Revering Heroes and Martyrs
Heroes are purely reactionary. By this I mean “reactionary” in the literal sense: they simply react to things; they have no projects of their own. – David Graeber
Many organisations rely on a subset of the group to deliver the majority of the work, because plans aren’t realistic and the consequences are high. The responsibility becomes individual in order to keep things going, and the incentive systems in place keep this happening because the business can’t see the pain/burn-out inflicted, just that the work has been done to a decent standard. It’s a conscious and invisible blindspot to the organisation to ignore the work happening on the weekends and the loss when a hero calls in sick.
IV. Conforming to Divine Geometry
Lines (2), triangles (3) and squares (4) are ideological ideals for the number of people who should work together at a given time. We have a bias that smaller groups and individuals execute faster than larger ones, because we aren’t willing to commit to coordinate at scale. Most organisations keep the team sizes small to reduce communication overhead and to reduce their ability to do too much damage.
V. Outsourcing Care
We think that managers drive performance and that people should manage themselves:
- A good manager is able to intervene and scaffold work correctly to meet the challenge and skill level of the person reporting.
- A good report can articulate what their needs and ambitions to get the resources and support. They are learners who can teach themselves everything.
As someone who is really bad at asking for what they need, this breaks down very very quickly. Management has become more hands-off and marketised as a role for everyone, rather than those who are good at it. It’s a care role to make sure people aren’t overworked and underpaid, and to lead them to get the best experience from their working days. There’s a level of intimacy required to really understand where people are coming from and what they’re good at, especially if they may not be right for their current role, but would do better elsewhere.
VI. Learning without Learning
That organisations spontaneously learn without effort just by trying a bunch of things without proper documentation. Failure must be chaptered, that is, you need to know what you tried and why to measure against what happened. On the individual level, this might be a decision journal. On an organisational level it is building a commons for continuous improvement that everyone can benefit from and reduce the duplication of vain effort. To learn, you have to be set up to learn.
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