I need to pay more attention. I can’t remember who it was who introduced me to this concept. It might have been Mark Earls. It might have been Andy Law. The concept has stuck with me, the originator has been blurred in my mind. I’ll blame autocorrect.
The concept goes a little like this. Think of the world as a series of transactions and interactions. Transactions are mechanistic. Interactions are organic. Transactions are the way of the industrial era. They are scalable, repeatable. You can Six Sigma transactions. You can Kaizen them. You can manage them for quality, refine them, re-engineer them. You can produce massive great production lines for transactions and save the world. Or destroy the planet. Or possibly both at the same time.
None of that works with interactions.
You can, I guess, convert interactions into transactions. That’s what this Fourth Industrial Revolution (TM) is all about, it appears. That’s not the same as scaling interactions. Being on Facebook is not the same as being in the pub. Uber isn’t the same as phoning up the local taxi firm. Amazon isn’t like going into a great local market. The experience of AirBnB is nothing like that of a great hotel. That’s because all of those businesses are converting interactions into transactions (and through their infernal ratings systems are trying to enforce the same mentality on the actual interactions that are generated through those platforms).
Where these issues of scaling come to a head are when organisations look at how they operate within. “We want to collaborate!” they claim. But too often what they really want to do is to convert interactions into transactions. They want repeatable best practice that enables them to enforce uniformity into the ways in which their people work. And whilst some processes are there to be automated, the stuff that relies on people and their adaptability, well – you homogenize that at your peril.
Because over the years that I’ve now been looking at this stuff I’ve become aware of a few things with which large organisations are struggling when it comes to how modern digital workplace technology has the power to change their ways of working.
Nobody knows the teams in which they work, and the teams in which they are managed are rarely our workgroups.
The teams in which we are line-managed are rarely groups who work together as a whole, and often the only thing a line-management team have in common is that they have the same line manager. The actual work goes on in subteams, cross-organisational project teams and so on. And we usually find ourselves a member of many teams at any given time.
Matrix-managed organisations lead to forming/storming loops.
It’s comparatively rare to find a group of people who form to perform a project or activity and are a cohesive group throughout the entire duration of the activity. The reality is that teams are amorphous, and as a result, it’s rare to find them really getting beyond the “storming” phase in Bruce Tuckman’s Forming/Storming/Norming/Performing famous model. This is a problem because it means nobody really knows how they are supposed to be working in any given team at any given time.
Nobody knows how they are supposed to be working
Sure, there are processes. But processes in interaction-type work are, as my wife says about road laws in Italy, merely a suggestion. Don’t believe me? Try spending a day working strictly to the rules. In the 1970s this was known as Work to Rule industrial action and it cripples a business.
When it comes to working in teams, this is crucial. Unless collectively you can start from a point of common understanding of how you work today, you don’t stand a chance of working out collectively how you might use new tools and technologies to work better in the future.
Most people don’t have time to contexualise new tools
Teams/Slack/Trello (insert/delete as appropriate) can be used to do pretty much anything. But blank canvases like that are a nightmare because most people are too busy to work out how to make them make sense in their own context.
The temptation then is to tell them. But then it’s not owned by the group, it’s enforced from outside, and unless you spend ridiculous time and energy they’ll carry on as was anyway.
And so what to do?
Here’s the rub. Transactions scale by the economy of doing the same thing many, many, many times, increasing the efficiency of each iteration by making it repeatable. Interactions don’t. So when it comes to scaling interactions we need to find frameworks that help people at a granular team level work things out for themselves so that they can identify meaningful changes that are important enough to be worth pursuing but not so big that they’ll break their entire operation. Catalytic changes that prove a point and raise the ability for those teams to be more adaptable and communicative and consensual.
For sure share those good practices amongst others, but see them as inspiration rather than instruction.
The Rich Pictures approach that I’ve been using with clients over the past year seems to help. I’d love to hear about other ways.