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.”