Read Jon Ingham's latest article published in HR Magazine, October 2019 for a new take on organisation design.
I participated in a panel at Symposium's Talent and Leadership Development conference earlier this month. The panel was on social leadership, which I thought was an interesting though rather surprising topic to be discussed in this sort of form. And I was even more surprised when the conference chair opened the session by suggesting that social leadership was an increasingly topical term.
However, I was pleased by the suggestion and do believe that social leadership is something we should be talking about, although I'm still not sure that many people are.
If it is a topical term, then this must be mainly due to the efforts of Julian Stodd, author of the Social Leadership Handbook, as well as various other linked publications and his blog.
For Julian, social learning and leadership are required responses to the current Social Age, enabled by digital technology. I disagree with Julian on quite a bit of this. I don't think social collaborative technologies are a key part of social leadership, though they are certainly part of the reason that social leadership is needed. But leadership needs to be social however it's done, the technologies are just tools to help do it.
I also don't agree that social leadership subverts hierarchy. Hierarchical leadership isn't going to go away (neither are work, jobs or careers) and needs to be social as well.
And I don't agree that women are going to continue to earn less than men in the Social Age. I deal with this in The Social Organization. Social leadership is very much based on traits traditionally linked to women. This doesn't mean than men can't learn and demonstrate them, but it's often not the most natural way for many incompetent men to behave. The future belongs to socially competent women, and a few men, and rewards are going to shift to what's really important in this new world (I talked about this in my reward presentation in California too).
I'm also much more positive about HR!
But I do love Julian's key ideas about social leadership, eg that it is "authentic, grounded and free to anyone to develop, adapt and share. The starting point is 'How can I help you succeed?, not 'How can I get you to do...?'" And that humility sits at the heart of it. I also love the way that Julian acts as a social leader personally too. I may be an influencer / mover and shaker, and this can only be based on personal rather than positional influence (since I don't have a traditional position). But it's also achieved in rather traditional and perhaps rather egocentric, rather than more modern or social ways. I believe social leadership is important but I'm not putting myself forward as a role model of a social leader!
However, social leadership is something which is now being talked about by other people, even if they don't use the term. For example, at the California HR conference at the end of August, where I was speaking about reward innovation, my favourite session was from Linda Hill, author of Collective Genius. Linda spoke about leading innovation, but explained that this is about encouraging creative abrasion - a diversity of often competing and conflicting ideas; creative agility - testing ideas eg through design thinking by getting closer to the people you're designing for; and creative resolution - effective decision making vs either compromise or domination. So this is social leadership too.
I agreed with Linda's points, though I thought a lot of this was about organisation, not about leadership. Leaders need to ensure that the right organisation architecture is in place, but they don't necessarily need to design that architecture - this is a specialist competency and responsibility. What leaders need to do is to lead their people, and increasingly the networks between their people. This is the social bit. So I was pleased that Linda also recommended HR helping executives understand the network side of what they do.
However, this shouldn't just be about leaders' own personal, ego networks, which were the focus of Linda's presentation. It needs to extend to the development of broader organisational (and ecosystem) networks too.
It also needs to extend to leaders' ability to form the right relationships and have effective conversations too. Linda referred to Boris Groysberg's work on leadership as a conversation which I think is great too.
But in my Symposium panel, I suggested that the role of leaders is also more complex than this. Firstly, leadership needs to be much more distributed than it is now. We do need everyone in any organisation to be a leader.
In addition, leaders need to lead all the various groups I refer to in The Social Organization. These include the teams doing the work of the organisation (especially when these are horizontal teams, not just groupings of individuals working in functions); communities of people relating with each other (I think communities can take a broader role than Julian); and the broader, more distributed networks of connections across the organisation. Innovation needs all of these to play an effective role (see Michael Arena, Adaptive Space) so leaders need to lead in each of these spaces too.
The main issue, which I describe in The Social Organization, is that leaders today tend to lose empathy as they rise up the organisational hierarchy (see, for example, Adam Galinsky, Friend & Foe). Is this because we promote and select the wrong people into leadership positions? (yes) Or because increasing power corrupts the people working in leadership positions? (yes as well) Either way, the move towards teams, communities and networks should help reduce the focus on hierarchy which is more evident and impactful in traditional functions.
But at the moment, there's not enough focus on helping executives, and others, develop empathy and humility, plus intimacy, interactivity, inclusion and intentionality, and create and support personal and organisational networks, and harness these in an increasingly varied set of organisational groups. So there are example of organisations that are doing great things in all the aspects of social leadership I've mentioned. And I was very impressed with the stories my co-panelists, Aimee Badcock at Philips and Robert Ritchie at Salford University, were sharing.
But I don't yet know of any companies which have completely transformed their approach to leadership development to do everything I've just listed here (eg differentiating leadership of communities from leadership of horizontal teams). And it is this which I think is now required as an effective response to the Social Age.
I've been doing more work with leadership teams on this agenda recently and do contact me if you want to know more.
I had the opportunity to listen to Mark Mortensen and Heidi Garner at a Harvard Business Review event a few weeks back.
Mark focuses on team level collaboration and suggests doing this effectively, especially in ‘4D’ (diverse, dispersed, digital and dynamic), ie more networked, teams is about have a compelling direction, a strong structure, a supportive context and a critical fourth condition: a shared mindset. This last condition is required in order to avoid two corrosive problems—‘us versus them’ thinking and incomplete information. In these 4D teams, team members tend not to perceive themselves as one cohesive group but as several smaller subgroups. We need a shared mindset to avoid seeing our own subgroup more positively than others.
Geographically dispersed teams have particular issues and Mortensen suggests that when two geographically distant groups are unequal in number, the smaller group can be disadvantaged.
However, when just one of the team members were located away from the rest of the team, their role seemed to promote better cooperation, better communication, and better outcomes across the team.
Mark also studies multi team membership which formed much of the context for the HBR event.
Heidi focuses on organizational collaboration at a broader level, including on how collaborative teams are formed. She is the author of one of the best books on social organizations, Smart Collaboration which focuses on collaborative working in professional services firms. It’s an interesting sector to focus on as it has previously been very individually focused (I remember the days of ‘eat what you kill’ from my own early experience) but does obviously need to be collaborative (though I would suggest Heidi’s focus is actually on network cooperation rather than team collaboration).
Heidi provides some great evidence for the impact of collaboration too, and suggests that it is now becoming so important that it is likely to become mere table stakes.
However there are real obstacles too, and I like Heidi’s list which includes lack of trust (competence and interpersonal warmth), confidence and capability to dig into clients’ broader issues, lack of knowledge about a firm’s offerings, inefficiency of collaboration processes at startup and during ongoing coordination, and the politics and messiness of managing peers’ work.
I agree that social technologies are a big part of tackling these issues, though I don’t know why Heidi felt the need to invent a new acronym CTP (collaborative technology platform) vs using the more common ESN (enterprise social network).
I also like the suggestion of using network brokers to suggest which partners are likely to reciprocate collaborative behaviours though I’m less sure why these brokers need to be partners themselves. And I don’t agree with the suggestion that partners prioritise ruthlessly and realistically - in my experience this just becomes an excuse not to collaborate and passes ineffectiveness on to other parts of the organization.
And I like most of Heidi’s suggestions around measurement and compensation (both of which Mark writes about too). Both are big issues and can either get badly in the way or enable the right approach. But I don’t agree that firms should measure something and not share it (eg office based P&Ls) as this will create misalignment between different levels of the organisation (firm, office, individual, etc) and contribute to mistrust and cynicism. (edited)
And I do have a couple of broader issues with the book.
Firstly, I don’t think the book goes far enough. Eg it talks about motivating the stars but seems to assume that these people are still the same individually and sales focused types they have always been, just with them behaving in a slightly different way. To me, a truly collaborative firm has got to start defining stars in a very different way. And it’s easier to start with these existing collaborators rather than trying to change existing rainmakers into great collaborators.
Secondly, I disagree that collaboration is just a means to and end. On it’s own it has no value, that is true. But by investing in collaboration organisations can make other benefits emerge as well. This means they need to invest in collaboration / social capital as a basis for their future success, without knowing what the nature of that success will be. Heidi herself writes about a necessary leap of faith before companies get through the pain barrier and collaboration starts to become a normal way of working.
And thirdly, I’m not sure Heidi’s smart collaboration is a real thing, other than being about collaborating in efficient and effective ways. Surely we should be able to assume there will be this desire too. In fact, this is why I focus on social capital rather than just collaboration. Collaboration can be good or bad - not just because it’s inefficient or ineffective, but just because there’s too much of it. Social capital, as the value of the collaboration, is always a good thing.
That of course leads us on to the topic of Heidi and Mark’s recent article, and of the talk.
Increasingly, businesses are progressing beyond individual projects and are scaling this up to a projectised approach to the whole organization.
We need to deploy human capital in the same way as other capital - firstly, for efficiency; secondly, we don’t want people on the bench and with multiple projects we can smooth demand and act flexibly; and thirdly, there’s an additional new wave about complexity - people are increasingly specialised so it makes sense to leverage this across projects. These benefits, shown on the top line of the slide, are about appealing to the value / operations / utilisation of assets.
The bottom line is about caring about people. Firstly, there is projects as mechanisms for learning, diffusing knowledge across silos. And secondly, it provides a means to empower staff meaning organizations are more likely to retain them.
The dark side of multi teaming is that projects often raise competing demands and leaders aren’t necessarily co-ordinating them. People end up being spread too thinly - engaged in planning rather than doing, dealing with complexity in resourcing etc - and therefore not feeling they have a ‘home’ (why I suggest projects often need to be complemented with communities) and unable to develop the skills they need.
This leads to people doing lots of task switching and high switching costs. The impact of this ‘thrash’ depends on how close the various projects are to one another and also on the differences in the context and environment, eg there can be a ‘status residual’ when someone who has been a project manager on one project has to take a team member role and therefore to ‘zip it’ on an different team.
In addition people may not get exposure and may not learn anything when they bounce from one project to the next. This also impacts cohesion - when people are too stretched they become really stressed, so even if they want to catch up with someone later it will never happen.
The other issue is that we don’t understand the trade offs, eg about how multi teaming impacts things like resource allocation, on-time project completion, and the cost of reducing slack, particularly on resistance to external shocks. (edited)
Or we might understand the project side, but not the intersection with the non project side of the organization. Especially if people can pulled off this side onto projects too, often for emotional rather than rational reasons.
And we don’t understand how well multi commitment is distributed (eg one person works on 12 projects in the graph above). Often there are people who like having this sort of diverse palette of projects, but they are not always good at managing it. the problem is particularly significant in organizations like IBM which have internal talent marketplaces and people are empowered to self select which projects to work on. By definition, there is no one person in change and there is often pressure to be on lots of projects to be promotable.
We had a conversation about whether managing this should be a line manager or individual responsibility, and later I chatted to Herminia Ibarra who suggested systems like 360 degree feedback could help. For me, it’s about implementing communities alongside projects, so that people have a home, and somewhere to discuss these sorts of problems. But of course, that has the potential just to add over commitment too.
Yesterday I attended my fourth year of the Peter Drucker Forum conference in Vienna, again via the live stream. The most interesting of the morning’s sessions for me was from John Hagel at Delotte’s Centre for the Edge, talking about the need to redefine work. If jobs are just about processing tasks then this can be done better my machines. Instead, work should be about identifying and addressing unseen opportunities to create more value.
Hagel mentioned one consequence of this needs to be a focus from business process reengineering to business practice design, and I’ve been reviewing some of their recent articles on this.
Their suggestion is that this offers more opportunity than business process design because much of the most important work of many organizations today is no longer routine or even predictable. When conditions and requirements shift constantly, processes fail. So we need to move beyond process.
In this environment, frontline workers could have to work together in order to address them, since an individual alone will be less likely to effectively solve an issue or develop an opportunity: “Any one individual will typically be less effective at developing and delivering creative solutions to address them than a small group working together in deep, trust-based relationships. And while informal collaboration can still be valuable, the imperative to learn faster will likely drive workers toward more sustained collaboration over time.”
Therefore, instead of processes, Deloitte recommend focusing on the work practices of frontline workgroups:
“A practice is the way work actually gets done, the activity involved in accomplishing a particular job. Practices are not typically codified. They are mostly tacit and emerge through action—for instance, there’s no learning to ride a bike except through the act of trying. Practices tend to be context-specific and are constantly evolving—much like today’s business opportunities. They can be difficult to articulate; they don’t translate into a practice manual.”
“A workgroup pulls together three to 15 people working interdependently to deliver a shared outcome that could not be achieved without all members working on it together. The members spend the significant majority of their time interacting with each other, formally and informally, on tasks that cannot be highly specified or sequenced in advance.”
Deloitte also suggest nine workgroup practices which accelerate performance improvement:
These groups aren’t the same groups as high performing teams: “The organizations that learn how to get on an accelerating performance trajectory—where they continuously develop new and better ways to deliver new value rather than becoming more efficient at delivering the same value—could be the ones that thrive in an increasingly unpredictable world, one in which a strength can rapidly turn into a vulnerability. The practices that aim to generate high performance as typically defined within an organization—delivering the results that leaders expect—are unlikely to generate accelerating performance improvement and may actually hinder it.”
Deloitte describes them as ‘edge workgroups': “frontline workgroups that are pushing the boundaries and limits of performance improvement to accelerate performance improvement while addressing unanticipated challenges or opportunities. Edge workgroups focus on their performance over time and might sacrifice short-term efficiency to achieve higher performance over time. They attract people who are committed to learning how to make more and more of an impact. Edge workgroups are characterized by deep, trust-based relationships and mutual accountability. While few are today, all frontline workgroups could eventually become edge workgroups.”
I’d also suggest that they are decreasingly likely not to be teams, and increasingly are going to be networks or communities of performance. Deloitte note the need to move from silos to networks but suggest “this may require organizations to support practices that let individuals be much more networked across workgroups and across organizations so that workgroups can engage with each other to help accelerate performance improvement.” I think the workgroups will increasingly act as communities and networks too.
In fact, this is played out in Deloitte’s case studies:
The Performance Network
Royal Caribbean Cruises Newbuilding & Innovation workgroup focuses on structural design elements of new ships. The activities of the workgroup members are interdependent and the ship / its experience is an output of the entire group. However the group’s work is not about proposing all the designs or implementing them but ensuring the coordination of everything that is agreed, challenging each other and collectively pushing boundaries: “The group uses the shared outcome to define ambitious ends but not the means. Members don’t micromanage or focus much on key performance indicators in the day-to-day work.”
In terms of membership, the workgroup consists of 12 employees, including architectural designers, architects, naval architects, technical experts, financial specialists, and program and project managers, but also 5 design consultants, 12 members of other firms (providing 60-75% of their time) and executives, so over 30 people in total. This is a large team (double the maximum for a true work team according to Deloitte) though I think it could be considered to be a small network too, with the small size allowing all network members to know each other and behave almost as a team.
The group works across many tight deadlines, global operations, multiple time zones, cultural differences, and vacation schedules, with people working mainly remotely except for during their ‘charrettes’—“intense periods of collaborative design rooted in the culture of architecture. In a charrette, all workgroup members gather in a conference room at headquarters until they’ve made sufficient progress.” I think that outside of these times, group members are working mainly independently, co-ordinating their work, but probably collaborating mainly with others within their own functions. Work also spans multiple ship building projects so if this is a team it is a process based team not a project based on. But the case study is supposed to be demonstrating practices not processes, so I don’t think it is a process based team either.
Another reason I think the group is a network is that its key objective is to bring people together to steer the work, not get a set piece of work done by certain people: “The group attracts, and actively recruits, a particular type of RCL employee: dreamers who are also drivers. Passion and a growth mind-set are qualities they seek because members need to challenge each other and collectively push boundaries to achieve innovation in ship design. We’re looking for candidates who want to grow and develop with us. To work in an environment where they’ll be challenged to take things to the next level, where there’s an opportunity for their voices to be heard.”
They also “bring in designers across a range of design backgrounds, as well as futurists and trend forecasters, who challenge members to rethink their assumptions and expand their sense of the possible. For inspiration on assembly practices, for example, group members have turned to engineers in the auto industry. For cabin design inspiration, they’ve tapped the work of airline designers who deal with even more confined spaces.”
So their focus is outside of the group, bringing in new ideas from outside of the organisation, combining them creatively across disciplines, and providing the basis for work in the rest of the organisation. “Workgroup members are constantly expanding their influences to gather inspiration for new ship designs. They spend a significant amount of time in new and stimulating environments, both within and outside the cruise industry.”
And “To help push members’ thinking, the workgroup also looks outside, aiming to bring in outside perspectives from others along the value chain as well as others at the forefront of fields not directly connected to the cruise industry. Engaging with external perspectives tends to help the entire workgroup learn faster. Partnering with industry leaders, designers, and consultants in various geographical locations and time zones across the world can pose challenges, but the group credits combining these talents and skills as core to their evolution and success.”
So for me, this is either a network, or a team at the centre of / pulling together a network that spans across the company’s mainly functional organisation structure.
The Performance Community
Southwest Airlines Network Operations Control (NOC) Field Tech workgroup is a specialized unit of aircraft mechanics. Members try to fix what no one else can—repairing planes after mechanics in maintenance units have failed to fix them after three attempts.
The Field Tech workgroup comprises 14 employees working at 10 airports, or nodes, in Southwest’s network and who are assigned to the workgroup full time. “They spend their days fixing issues on aircraft and leveraging the resources of local maintenance crews, as well as working with other Field Techs to help troubleshoot and resolve issues on planes at other sites. Thanks in part to members’ distribution across time zones, the workgroup operates 24/7. In an eight-hour shift, a single technician might work on 12 different planes, both at his node and remotely.”
“Although its members are geographically distributed and there may be only one Field Tech physically with any given plane, they are often in contact with each other throughout the day. Around 25 percent of the aircraft the workgroup touches each day require the Field Techs to work collaboratively, and often interdependently, to develop solutions to new and challenging problems. Much of this is done using audio and video chat, as well as logs, allowing members to build upon each other’s skills, insights, and ideas to get planes back in service.”
So this group does do some teaming, but in the main they’re not working with each other, they’re sharing their insights about different planes, so that the most locally based group member can fix a particular plane most effectively. In fact, they’re a community. But they’re not just a community of practice. They’re not there just to learn, though this is certainly part of what they need to do. They’re there to make a real business contribution. They’re a community of performance.
As with Royal Caribbean, the key objective is to allocate work to the people, not the people to the work, and on learning not efficiency. “Over time, workgroup members have learned to play to each other’s strengths, creating an environment in which each can give his best in service of a shared outcome, and finding opportunities for others to succeed. For example, when members saw that a technician in Chicago enjoyed working on pneumatic problems, they sent him planes with such problems.”
And “The workgroup doesn’t look for technicians who fit a set mold or profile—quite the opposite. If you had a cookie cutter, it certainly wouldn’t apply. No two technicians are the same: Workgroup members vary in working styles, personality, professional background and more. So what do they look for? Hard work, creativity, stubbornness. A love of challenges. A commitment to getting the job done, by any means necessary.
The community also sits within a broader functional network, transferring learning outside the community: “The group’s ‘Teach me, watch me, watch me teach someone else’ approach takes a long-term view, placing group and maintenance crew capabilities and effectiveness over the short-term efficiency of just getting a task done. As members pick up new skills, they share those capabilities and lessons learned with other members and, in parallel, the line maintenance crews. observations, and possibly tinkering with how the task is completed or the problem is solved. This accelerates the workgroup’s learning even as the regular opportunities to teach each other, and the line maintenance crews themselves, also accelerate individual Field Tech members’ learning. Members value what they see as an opportunity to learn and gain experience faster: ‘Working as a Field Tech for two years can produce an experience level that it might take 10 years to attain otherwise.’ ”
Note also that “relationships are paramount; you have to trust the person working next to you. Field Tech tends to promote people who have built up trusted relationships at a given airport.”
Most of the other case studies are fairly straight forward team based examples. There is one other interesting example though. SWA’s Baker workgroup, which aims to improve decision-making around unanticipated operational and weather-related events, is described in networking terms - making network based decisions - which I think applies more broadly than just the air route network. However this isn’t a network based workgroup as it’s a group of people responding to task requirements, rather than a group of people who then generate the work. Instead it is a new functional grouping which spans across existing departments and locations in a 3d matrix.
Finally, I also like Deloite’s suggestion that we’ve tended to overlook the opportunity to create these edge workgroups because whilst we may recognise their importance, few companies track performance at the workgroup level, much less track how these workgroups are doing over time.
I just wouldn’t call this business practice design - it isn’t the practices which are important, it’s the use of the various groups - teams plus communities and networks, and the practices used by the groups are part of the group design. And, as suggested above, I’d broaden out Deloitte’s definition of group to include communities and networks too.
And as I suggest in The Social Organization, we need to pay more attention to all the various groups and networks that contribute to performance in today’s business world.
Engagedly (performance management system) name Jon Ingham in their list of top 100 HR Influencers for 2018.
The list of 100 was narrowed down by Engagedly's industry research from nearly 300 candidates and nominations. The research team closely researched the industry and considered HR professionals from all divisions and sub-specialties within the broader HR community to encompass the entire industry, including HR Generals, HR Tech, Talent Management, and more. "This year, we took a data-driven approach to the Top 100 List. We analyzed professionals on their social media following, blogging activity, presence at conferences, work in academia, and innovative contributions. We put an emphasis on recency, frequency, and relevance of engagement over the past year."
For more information:
I think one of the best recent books on social capital related topics is Extreme Teaming by Amy Edmondson, who I note in The Social Organization has previously introduced the ideas of teaming and psychological safety.
Teaming is about the idea that people join and form teams increasingly frequently, and therefore the team (the noun) starts to become less important than the ability to team (the verb).
Psychological Safety is the trust people have that others in their team (and I would argue, other types of group) have to have that others have their back, ie that they will be supported when they take a risk.
The idea of Extreme Teaming in the new book extends the idea to complex, cross sector and cross organisation situations. This builds on Edmondson’s earlier book on Big Teaming which dealt with a slightly simpler, if still complex, environment of cross discipline, but still intra organisational teaming.
I particularly like Edmondson’s articulation of the well known idea that teaming is required because of the demands to match increasing specialisation with increasingly complex challenges. “The so called knowledge explosion leads to narrower and deeper areas of specialisation. Fields this span subfields.” “On the other hand concurrent with the rise of narrow and deep expertise, the problems facing organisations and society have not of course narrowed accordingly. Instead they are increasingly complex and multifaceted. Addressing them requires multi-disciplinary approaches.” “This, to solve complex problems and innovate in ways that reflect the increasing rate of change, today’s organisations must take advantage of deep specialised knowledge and manage knowledge integration across these domains of expertise at the same time. These two opposing challenges create the need for organisations to master extreme teaming.”
Edmondson also notes GE’s claim that “today’s problems are too big for them to solve alone and that to do so they need to collaborate like they never have before.”
I also like the case studies in the book. However the important thing for me isn’t that these examples are cross organisational as well as cross discipline, it’s that they’re so complex that they can’t be dealt with in a normal team.
Some of the example (projects Fiona and Sofia) are therefore fairly traditional, a bit like the smart cities case study in Edmondson’s earlier book, or Paul Sparrow’s examples of collaborative HR. I’ve already suggested that teams, communities and networks actually need more than psychological safety and it’s interesting that it’s Project Fiona which is used to demonstrate the need for psychological safety, not one of projects Bianca or Willa which are much more complex.
This It is this complexity which I think means that human ingenuity rather than management of the project becomes the most important factor. People rather than tasks.
Edmondson also reviews the response to the Chilean mine disaster: “An extraordinary cross-industry teaming effort by hundreds of individuals spanning physical, organisational, cultural, geographic, and professional boundaries. Engineers, geologists, drilling specialists, and more came together from different organisations, sectors and nations to work on the immensely challenging technical problem of locating, reaching and extracting the trapped miners.”
Responding to this challenge included a relatively clear objective but little clarity in how the objective could be achieved. It involved three parallel ‘teaming efforts’, with different clusters of experts coming up with complementary pieces of the solution and roles emerging and shifting as the teaming went on. “Leaders of different subgrouping met routinely every morning and called for additional quick meetings on an as-needed basis.”
Edmondson may call these examples of extreme teaming but they don’t display many of the traditional traits of teams. Eg comparing the Chilean mine challenge vs Hackman’s conditions for a team:
I guess these differences are why Edmondson calls the examples extreme rather than just big. But for me, they’re just not teaming at all. They’re networking.
In fact they are examples of what, in The Social Organization, I call Performance Networking. They’re the use of networks, not just in the informal, tactical, communication oriented way these have traditionally been associated with, but to achieve really important contributions. Formal, strategic, performance oriented networks. Flash networks not flash teams.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise. Edmondson suggests that teams are the performance unit per excellence for innovation. But I think it’s generally understood that this isn’t teams, it’s networks. Or it depends on what the innovation demand is about. Executing innovative ideas tends to be best performed by teams, but creating the innovative breakthrough is best achieved through networks. So performance networks beat teams when the creation is the critical requirement vs just the execution.
Finally, I also like the explanations on the problems, functions and benefits of extreme teaming / performance networking.
The problems focus on communication failures at the boundaries between professions, organisations and industries (or across the network): “As individuals bring diverse expertise, skills, perspectives, and goals together in unique configurations to accomplish challenging goals, they must overcome subtle and not-so-subtle challenges of communicating across boundaries. Some boundaries are obvious - being in different countries with different time zones, for example. Others are subtle, such as when two engineers working for the same company in different facilities unknowingly bring different taken-for-granted assumptions about how to carry out this or that technical procedure to collaboration.” (ie a lack of shared norms as in traditional high performing teams.)
This is compounded by interpersonal challenges around people’s emotions and relationships, ensuring others are seen as in the same ‘in group’ and developing relational co-ordination.
The four functions Edmondson suggests are building an engaging vision, cultivating psychological safety (I’d suggest psychological curiosity is what really powers performance networks), developing shared mental models and empowering agile execution .
Shared mental models, which includes diagnosing interfaces for knowledge sharing and leveraging boundary objects is demonstrated very well through Project Willa, a collaborative effort involving more than 80 individuals from four organisations, 20 disciplines and 4 countries. “Immense diversity of technical expertise had to be accommodated by collaborators who shared neither mother tongue nor time zone.”
The benefits of the approach include helping tap the potential provided by group diversity. This takes place through group learning behaviours / processes which include “asking questions, seeking feedback, experimenting, reflecting on results, and discussing errors or unexpected outcomes of actions.”
Jon is included in this article on developing internal relationships in the digital workplace published on the UNLEASH conference site.
Despite what the article suggests, he didn’t actually say that the US is behind the rest of the world - simply that each country / region experiences it’s own unique challenges.
Here’s the full interview:
Tell me a little about your professional background and organization
I am a consultant at The Social Organization and focus on helping companies develop innovative people strategies, often based on ensuring people are able to work together effectively.
I started my career in engineering and IT and when I came into HR started with an engineer’s perspective on designing and managing HR processes. But I was fortunate to get a job as HR Director for EY which even then was a very people focused, progressive firm. That experience led to a growing interest in organisation development and a desire to really understand people and the way we learn, become engaged, work together and perform. I still think that it is really important for HR professionals - understanding 'the business' is vital but our real difference comes from our understanding of the people within in. Technology is important too and I’ve maintained an interest in this since my days in IT (including an early involvement in UNLEASH’s original format, HR Tech Europe). Today’s digital workplace provides a major opportunity for HR to impact the business through people.
What are the biggest benefits and challenges of today's digital workplace?
The digital workplace enables us to get work done differently and better, and most importantly, work done that we would not have been able to do before. This applies particularly strongly to communication and collaboration, analytics and AI. For example, in organisation design, the digital workplace is now one of the most important elements of an organisation, and can have as much if not more impact on people’s ability to work, as the structure and processes we use.
The most common challenge in using the digital workplace is that unlike most IT systems people generally do not need to use it to get their jobs done, as the benefits are often organisational rather than individual. People have therefore got to understand the needs and broader benefits in using it, and to be engaged in supporting their organisation by doing the right thing. This means that the digital workplace needs to be designed for people, meaning that we now need to be very serious about the employee experience resulting from its use. An area that often gets missed is that the digital workplace needs to align with, ie to support and inform, the rest of the organisation. The physical workplace is particularly important and the digital and physical workplaces need to encourage the same type of behaviours and provide a similar type of experience.
Why are interpersonal relationships important as teams grow more digital and/or remote?
Relationships have always been important. The most fundamental idea behind organisations is that a number of people working together can achieve more than the same number of people working on their own. But this will only be the case if their relationships enable them to do so. More recently, relationships have become even more important. The amount of knowledge available and being generated is leading to greater specialisation in people’s roles. At the same time, the issues confronting organisations are becoming increasingly complex. This leads to growing demands to bring various people with different skills and perspectives together in teams, other groups and networks.
These demands are only going to increase. As AI takes over a lot of work currently performed by people, the main area that will be left as our competitive advantage is the ability to have relationships with each other. Virtual and remote working make it more difficult to develop the quality relationships we need and therefore make this resource even more important. Put all of this together and we'll soon need to start thinking less about people as knowledge workers, and more about ourselves as relationship workers, where relationships are the core aspect of what we do.
What tools or best practices can leaders employ to foster good interpersonal relationships in their digital workplace?
I think the key is to manage the implementation and maintenance of digital workplaces as organisation development interventions, not as IT. It is really critical to involve people, and to design for people. HR’s increasing interest in design thinking and its use of personas and journey mapping is really useful here. The implementation also needs to be supported by broader OD activities as, for example, it is easier for people to collaborate online if they know the people they are collaborating with offline too.
Other simple, human actions can make a big difference too, for example giving the workplace a human name that people can relate to. Community management is vital and is a great role for people in HR to take on. In many ways community management is the new HR - as in, traditional HR has been about individuals and human capital, the new HR is about relationships, communities and social capital.
Aside from the U.S., do you see any particular region or industry doing an especially good job at cultivating these relationships?
I am not so sure the US is doing a good job actually. I think Americans' sense of personal identify means that communities often end up as groups of people shouting at each other and it can be really difficult to get people to cooperate and collaborate with each other to their full extent. True community needs a sense of what’s in it for us, not just of what’s in it for me. I also think there is this strange thing where HR excellence is a power law whereas it is a normal distribution curve elsewhere. Ie there are a small number of truly excellent organisations but an awful lot of mediocre ones focused on hiring and firing too. Those from the later group are going to find developing relationships, and therefore getting the best out of their digital workplaces really hard to do.
Asia has the opposite problem in that there is a lot of focus on groups but there is the downside that people can also disappear and lose their sense of identify within them. Out of all the countries where I have worked, I would say that South Africa is the best placed. They have enormous technological challenges but once these are sorted, their culture of allowing people to sit around and talk things through will act as a huge advantage there.
One of my now favourite books on social organisations is Jody Hoffer Gittell’s book on organisation development, Transforming Relationships for High Performance: the Power of Relational Coordination. I only read this after writing The Social Organization although I did refer to her previous write up of coordination at Southwest Airlines in my own book.
Relational coordination is defined as coordinating work through high quality communication, supported by relationships of shared goals, shared knowledge and mutual respect. These dimensions foster communication that is sufficiently frequent and positive.
Whilst seemingly idealistic the approach is extremely practical. It is presented as a high road strategy of smarter, more efficient delivery contrasting with the low road of reducing wages and working conditions. High road strategies are fundamentally relational because employee skills need to be connected through relationships in order to create value. “Human capital is only half the story - it is through social capital that human capital is combined and leveraged for maximum impact.”
Relational coordination is supported by relational leadership and is required to provide relational coproduction for clients. Supporting my focus on both social architecture and organisational society, Hoffer Gittell notes that organisational structures can either weaken or support relational coordination and also that relationships emerge in ways that are not entirely predictable and are therefore difficult to change and sustain intentionally. She therefore presents a Relational Model of Organisational Change which consists of three complementary, synergistic and integrated sets of interventions which link the main elements in my Organisation Prioritisation Model:
1. Relational interventions disrupt and transform relationships patterns and are based on organisation development and positive organisational psychology. The interventions build a safe space for humble inquiry, enabling people to transform themselves and the way they see their roles in their organisations, trying out new role relationships and role modelling positive relational behaviours.
I particularly like HG’s suggestions on using a relational coordination survey (a very simple organisational network analysis / ONA); liberating structures for emergent design (eg appreciative inquiry, open space, fishbowl, etc); facilitated dialogue through conversations of interdependence and perspective taking through improv.
2. Process interventions focus on the work itself, helping people visualise the work they are engaged in and identifying opportunities to improve it through process mapping, considering organisational microsystems, goal clarification, structured problem solving and experimentation.
Relational and work process interventions tend to be seen as complementary but separate. However, there is value in bringing them together, eg positive deviance and appreciative inquiry are introduced as tools for relational intervention these can be used for work process interventions too.
3. Structural interventions provide the required new roles to push against our our natural homophily and hardwire new teamwork dynamics, replacing the traditional bureaucratic structures which can undermine these. For example, narrow spans can be used to create more intimate and informal relationships between supervisors and those on the frontline, supporting shared objectives, coaching and performance assessments, especially for those working in interdependent roles. “The solution is not to get rid of structures but rather to redesign them to support the reciprocal patterns of interrelating that we ned to meet performance pressures.”
Structural changes are especially important when people do not know each other personally and in order to scale and sustain relational coordination. Important structural aspects, which are generally familiar but can be used in more relational ways, include:
It’s a good list though I think there are a lot of other opportunities too, and this is where The Social Organisation really focuses.
Relational coordination contrasts with traditional bureaucracy where coordination takes place mainly at the top of the organisation and employees are divided into functional areas of expertise. This helps people understand the whole system, reduces the impact of status differences, and increases adaptive capability.
Note though that, as I also suggest, self management is not a mandatory aspect of the approach. Hierarchy is not meant to require domination or power over someone. Reporting arrangements simply describe each person’s realm of autonomy. But people do need a horizontal as well as vertical view of their organisations in order to be empowered and use their autonomy effectively. We therefore need to concentrate on HG’s interventions rather than the removal of management or leadership.
And we also need relational leaders who can facilitate relational coordination amongst frontline employees. This requires reciprocal, fluid relationships between workers and managers which recognise the authority in role and in which managers learn from workers’ deeper, more focused knowledge of the work, and workers learn from managers broader contextual knowledge. HG again uses Southwest Airlines as an example of relational, or connective leadership:
“Herb Keller is not your average CEO. He really cares to let people know he cares… He sets the example of respect for everyone. All are important. Treat each other with the same respect as our customers. So people are happy… I can call our CEO today… he listens to everybody. He’s unbelievable when it comes to personal etiquette. If you’ve got a problem, he cares.”