Sunday, November 2, 2008

Assumption 8: Vertical or Horizontal Coordination

As you know, our world is primarily organized in ways that rely on vertical coordination. Someone with greater authority makes decisions, and others follow. And if two or more people disagree on anything, they take the question to someone "above" them, to avoid conflict by deciding for them.

Business organizations are generally structured as hierarchies of authority, with a CEO at the top directing an executive management group. Each of them, in turn, directs a group of middle managers, who direct groups below them, all the way down to supervisors and team leaders, who direct the people "on the shop floor" who actually "do the work." Everyone understands that managing is work too, but common usage is that people are either managers or workers. Still, managers understand all too well that managing is hard work. And it's getting harder.

As our world has accelerated, managers no longer have all the answers, and their direction tends to ignore or suppress the knowledge and information of group members who are doing the work. This sub-optimizes the potential for shared judgment and the effectiveness of the work group. It's the work group as a whole that can best generate the required information about needs and problems, and possible solutions. "No one knows as much as all of us."

But since our shared mindset has not yet changed, managers still get paid for deciding and directing, even though in most circumstances the consequences of their decisions are not easily evaluated. So, many managers cultivate the habit of hiding their confusion, and at least looking decisive. Decisiveness in a complex organizational environment is highly valued, and leads to promotions—all the way to the top. But decisiveness does not necessarily equate with good judgment, or wisdom. To make things worse, most people habitually collude in avoiding their own insecurity generated by complex, ambiguous situations by passively delegating upward to "the person in charge."

Public and not-for-profit organizations use the same framework, and generally try to emulate what they imagine is the efficiency and orderliness of business organizations. This, unfortunately, often leads them to become more "businesslike" and rule-bound, rather than more responsive and effective. Government organizations thus tend to be the most bureaucratic (that's where the word comes from—"we'll have to refer your request to the Bureau of Endless Red Tape.")

Schools and colleges have similar administrative structures, and also use this model within the classroom. The teacher or the professor knows more than the students, and conveys that information, usually via lectures, then verifies that students have acquired the requisite knowledge. The implicit learning that is transmitted, of course, is that the world functions as a hierarchy, and that those with more knowledge and authority direct the rest. Most schools thus prepare people to become passive factory workers—at least the factories of the past.

This vertical coordination model and its underlying assumptions have been termed "Design Principle One" by Fred Emery, Eric Trist, and others. In a ground-breaking study they discovered that teams of workers in a coal mine had developed a horizontal coordination approach. Without the help—or hindrance—of a supervisor, they worked out with each other how the day's work could best be done, and by whom. Rather than relying on skill specialization and division of labor among various team members, they learned continually from each other, and could perform most of the required functions as needed. When managers tried to return them to a "well organized" way of working directed by a supervisor, both their efficiency and morale declined markedly. Allowed to return to their own team-based approach, they regained their high performance.

Emery and Trist described this as the use of self-managed cross-functional teams, and termed the horizontal coordination approach "Design Principle Two." They discovered that it was based on both a high degree of teamwork and on the more effective task methods such teams devised, and continually improved. They termed these two components the social system (teamwork) and the technical system (work methods). Since the two elements were clearly interdependent, they coined the term socio-technical systems. They then found that they could engender change toward Design Principle Two by involving members of other organizations in a process they called Socio-Technic Systems Redesign.

Since that time, many successful STS Redesign projects have been carried out. At an auto assembly plant, for example, a whole team of workers rides on the assembly line and puts a car together from beginning to end. Then they proudly engrave their names on the engine block. Some businesses have derived such great improvements that they consider the new methods a significant competitive advantage, and are reluctant to allow visitors to their production facilities.

There have been relatively fewer applications in public and not-for-profit settings, though the potential benefit is great there, too. And educational institutions lag behind in this respect as well. What would happen, do you think, if a college emphasized collaborative shared learning among students—and among professors?

And what might emerge in a municipality, or a government agency such as, say, the FDA or FEMA, if it shifted away from vertical control and toward an approach of horizontal collaborative community, including employees, service recipients, and stake-holders?

One could say, in fact, that in some ways the National election we have been engaged in is about a choice between Design Principles One and Two.

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John said...

I am working on a project with a community college that has this very dilemma. Administration is confused about how to proceed with the implementation of their strategic plan, but does not want too much involvement from employees because it will create situations where administrators will be forced to tell people that their idea will not be implemented. Leaders of unions and representatives for staff and faculty don’t necessarily trust administration to make decisions in their best interest and so are concerned about administration having control and final decision-making authority.

We are in a participatory governance environment and there is some question about what that means, for example, some think of it as shared governance and others emphasize the participatory part as a limitation because there is not shared responsibility. How to involve these constituencies in a productive, collaborative dialogue about the problems and opportunities facing the college is the challenge I am working on as we speak.

I am reminded of Tannenbaum’s leadership continuum as I evaluate the college’s decision-making process and am attempting to find the place where the various powers can work together to solve real and meaningful problems. I believe we have a good chance of success partly because our world is experiencing rapid change and the people in organizations are a bit more willing to try something new, especially if it resonates as a truth they have been feeling and deep down and want to be doing. By this I mean that I believe people know how to work together even with scarce resources, and with the right conditions people will do what is necessary to be effective. It is just that the right conditions sometimes mean we have to hit rock bottom, or be really scared about what might happen if we do not act appropriately, so we cooperate to save ourselves.

Saul said...

John, the situation you describe is a great example, and points to the dilemmas that can emerge in attempts to transition from DP One to DP Two, or from an adversarial system to a collaborative one. An organization can get stuck in the middle in unhappy ways.

It's tempting to seek the power-sharing and cooperation of others by talking about participatory governance. But DP One is supported by implicit work structures, beliefs, attitudes and skills that are vertically-oriented and hierarchical. These all have to change to move to DP Two, and it's not a quick or easy process to make that shift.

I know of an electronics manufacturing company in which the CEO heard about the great benefits of self-managed cross-functional teams. So he reorganized production into teams by directing them to work that way. The company failed, painfully, because he had skipped the crucial part—involving people in the shift, and providing the necessary opportunities for training, shared planning, and implementation.

You can't use a DP One process to move to DP Two. People need to understand the magnitude of the change, and to participate in a planning process to redesign and rethink how things work, from the ground up, and from work process inputs to outputs.

alexander said...

I have no doubt about the effectiveness of collaborative environment DP Two style. As a matter of fact, I am yet to meet a manager who would flat out refuse the idea of delegating more responsibility to workers so that they can find solutions themselves. However, the collaboration effort hits the wall as soon as the manager becomes aware that his group is becoming independent to a point where the manager no longer has the same degree of control over the group's decisions. In a typical scenario, the manager reacts by scrambling the collaborative arrangement and going back to less efficient but more comfortable controlling model. How do we allow for transition to DP Two without threatening the manager's sense of control? This is the question...

Saul said...

And it's a very good, and useful question, Alexander. It points to the importance of involving all employees in the process, from beginning to end—including managers. For them, the redesign process needs to include an orientation to the likelihood that their role is going to change. At Motorola, for example, the shift to DP Two was carried out in stages, with the managers' role changing from command and control to consultation and support over a period of years.

Everybody's job descriptions and expectations change—up and down the hierarchy. As you are pointing out, managers can have the toughest time making the shift, because they have learned to feel responsible for everything in their area, and it can feel to them like they're losing control. Some might even worry that there will be nothing for them to do any more.

But with appropriate involvement and orientation to the change process, managers can be given different, not fewer, responsibilities—to provide consultative advice and coaching as needed and requested by the new teams in various parts of the new organization, or to provide specialized technical consulting as needed. As with other organization participants, this requires significant training and support, throughout the transition period and beyond.

Most managers can make this role transition effectively and creatively, and can appreciate the professional development opportunity for themselves, as they help the organization become more effective as a whole.

John Milburn said...

This is very helpful to me as I proceed with my client. I am interested to know more about how to involve managers appropriately.

I am creating and delivering an implementation workshop and organizing campus wide involvement in the implementation process. I have suggested forming teams comprised of diagonal slices of the org including external stakeholders (students and community) and am delivering the implementation skill development workshops (process mapping, problem-solving, facilitating/recording, decision-making) to all who participate in the process.

Managers are still unsure of this process and I am very concerned that I proceed appropriately at this key juncture. I am working with each one individually to assist them with team formation and the process and structure for the work of analyzing existing core processes to see how they can be improved to help the org achieve its mission and goals.

The top of the organization is behind this effort, but the divide that pre-existed his time is deep and wide…to make this transition, I need to be extra thoughtful and deliberate.

So, to help with this transition, what other things do I need to do? I am with this client for another 6-7 months, so I have some time to assist them.

Saul said...

What an exciting project, John; and it sounds like you're doing great work with it. You are involving a range of individuals and groups, and including stakeholders in considering how to work together to make the transition work for the whole organization.

You are working with a large, complex human system, and I don't know enough about the details of the situation to really give you advice, but here is my take:

I think it's not surprising that managers are anxious about the change, especially in the historical context of divisiveness. It can be tempting to try to convince them that everything will be ok, but that would probably only make them worry more, no?

If you take a stance of shared inquiry, you could help surface their real and legitimate concerns. It may then become clear what conversations could be useful among them and with others. You could provide useful facilitation to help them hear and understand each other despite the tension.

I wonder if other participants here can offer additional perspectives?

alexander said...

Saul, what particular Trist/Emery piece of literature would you recommend for reading on DP 2 topic?

Saul said...

Alexander, one good source I can suggest is on the site for People in Charge, by Bob Rehm and Nancy Cebula. Take a look:

John Milburn said...

I just took a look at the website you mentioned and it is again very timely for me to reading this. I am wondering how to help the organization move from a somewhat bureaucratic structure to a more democratic structure in order to support true self managing teams.

I am working at the process level making progress there. We are implementing participative processes that could be institutionalized in the long run. But if the structure is too bureaucratic (as described by Rehm) this could lead to the org being stuck in a co-optive participation paradigm that could have some initial benefits, but have negative consequences in the long-term.

What does it take for an organization to change its structure? I have many questions around this.

Saul said...

This is another great question, John. Most projects like this understandably focus a lot of attention on redesigning task processes, and providing training to help people use the new procedures effectively. What is often given less attention is the need to redefine the organizational structure, from a hierarchy of authority to a hierarchy of function.

As Rehm points out managers need also to be in teams, and their role becomes more about coordinating horizontally with other managers to achieve the goals of the organization. Vertical and horizontal communication is not directive but informational. Decisions are made jointly in the context of the organization's goals and priorities, and marketing information about customers and competitors. This is not necessarily easy or "soft". Tough discussions and negotiations can be required to reach real agreement and good solutions.

This means that job descriptions need to change, together with the criteria for evaluating performance. Along with this, the reward system needs to change to support collaboration toward the organization's goals, rather than localized achievement that sub-optimizes the ability of the whole organization to accomplish its mission.

And this means, too, that the shared culture must shift. Organization cultures normally change slowly, if at all. Their function is really to provide stability and continuity, after all. Occasionally, they change dramatically, as a result of a crisis, a merger, or new leadership, but such changes are not easy, or comfortable.

So what you have on your hands is the need to support a significant culture shift at the college, from what Rehm calls Dominant Hierarchy to Self-Management. Contrary to what some popular management books claim, you can't unilaterally change culture, any more than you can relocate a glacier.

But culture is held jointly by all participants. And it's usually tacit and unconscious, which makes it inaccessible to intentionality and choice. What you can do, in your role as consultant, is to surface the culture-change issue and introduce it into the shared planning and decision-making about the changes they are attempting. Then all planning, redesign, and implementation activities they are engaged in can include a serious, explicit consideration of how they are going to think, act, and interact in new ways.