Right mission, good strategy. Doesn’t matter, unless people are performing well, and doing the work.
Work is done through people. And how well it is done. How efficiently it is done. How easy or hard it feels. How creative, supportive, innovative, aggressive, competitive, mean, kind, warm or cold it is and feels. That is the story of every organization’s interpersonal dynamics. It’s the observer’s description of its culture.
For the rare and lucky few cultures, it may feel like some rocky patches and bumps, but overall good. And for others, it might feel more like being stuck in a dark and swampy place.
Why the range of experience? Why does this happen?
Say there is a void, a gap in a workflow or process that needs to be filled.
It isn’t clear who should review or sign off and so something or many things keep being delayed.
It isn’t clear when there is a hand-off on responsibility and authority from one part to another and things are getting dropped.
Someone isn’t hearing about the work, updates on progress or decisions, and now needs to be inserted into the process, to avoid some other bad thing from happening "over there".
It is painful for awhile. There is a lot of conflict. Finally, something gets modified, someone(s) work gets changed to get process and information reconnected. Work continues to move forward again, now more smoothly and with less conflict for many.
Who is that “someone(s)” who steps in to fill the gap? Probably, whoever is closest to the gap, as they are the ones who see first it and are probably the most in pain because of it. That may not be ideal, but at the time it is convenient and the most easily accomplished. It makes sense, at the moment.
The problem is later. As time passes, we can no longer see the original context, it is gone. We don’t remember the change/decision that was made then and the problem it was trying to fix. Therefore, we never review that decision and ask ourselves is the process we invented, still working? With time, modifications, adaptions, personnel changes, the contextual memory is lost to us. Barry Oshry, (OD/Management Consultant and creator of the Organizational Learning Lab) calls this Temporal Blindness, one of the four types of organizational blindness that we can be limited by.
But we don’t see, understand or know any of that. Instead, desperate to make sense of our experience, we create a story to make sense of the current condition. A story which describes our experience, be it joy or pain, and makes our own personal "true" story that is congruent in the timeline of our own life and history.
To understand how we do this, think about how our brain will fill in missing detail to “see an image” from just a few dots or bits of data. We are hard-wired to fill in the gaps, to create the missing “stories, details, links” that pulls "it" all together and makes sense of what we see.
The tricky bit is (as if all that wasn’t tricky to see and understand), we all see the world a little bit differently. We really all do live in our own world. Often though at the time we make these clever adjustments, we don’t think to help create a shared story of what happened, so that we can help to create a cohesive collective memory in our institutional knowledge.
It gets a bit messier too.
Think too about our jobs, job titles, defined roles, undefined roles, personal interests, competitive nature, infinite variations of personal mental wellness and unconscious motives, decisions and behavior. In conflict and confusion, there is a lot or room for variation and interpretation.
Begin at the beginning, with the job description. When job descriptions are written that aren’t rooted in a real situational and causal analysis and forecast, and are overly influenced by unknown past decisions, people will find themselves with responsibility gaps, process bottlenecks and conflicting task ownership and unclear objectives in their roles.
Resilient/creative people will "solve it" by inserting or redistributing elsewhere in others' work and making new rules to solve the new problems created by the older decisions.
All adjustments and maneuvering is done, subconsciously (not unconsciously, but subconsciously). Yes, some can get strategic and perhaps manipulative in this environment, and see gains to be made. But it’s roots still are in lack of clarity of shared understanding of goal, roles and the appropriate structure to support and connect our work.
The inescapable truth – we need each other to achieve our purpose.
Our solution is for leaders to get better at seeing the present. Bring the subconscious decision-making to light. Seek a clarity that contextualizes understanding allowing for historical reference, adjust for cultural distortions and seek multiple perspectives to provide a more complete and cohesive shared story.
Clarity of vision at the top increases visibility throughout thus creating the conditions that allow for distributive real-time decision-making.
Expanded vision, emphasizing and constructing a shared story to build a reflective-responsive decision-making culture. All are parts of the vision requirements of leaders for having more influence on becoming, what we see and understand. After all, seeing is believing.