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When Hierarchy Fails to Deliver

How to build teams that thrive in complexity

This is not the article I intended to write. I'd finished the draft for another called Why Change? (like really!) looking at why we actually change stuff (given how much it takes) when I had an unexpected conversation with a client that too

For his coaching preparation he asked these two questions:

1. How do I make the most of a big meeting with a range of stakeholders and power levels?

2. How do I get a tired/ineffective working group fired up to work effectively?

Great questions right!

We ended up answering both in a way that he (and I) found really inspiring and useful… but the conversation didn’t go anywhere near where we expected it to.

Here's a crack at capturing some of it.

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Seeing the World 'Straight'

In the introduction of my latest favourite book (Sand Talk: How Indigenous thinking can save the world), Dr. Tyson Yungakapore talks about how, in pretty much all indigenous languages, words relating to a ‘path’ never imply a straight line.

There is simply no conception that anything gets from A to B in a straight line, because the reality is that nothing ever actually does.

Yet we keep creating strategies and policies like that's how things work.

If everything is independent, intuition and relationship management (meaning relationships with everything including yourself, society, your weight, your time, your money and of course, your job) plays a more important role than hierarchy and technical skill.

This ‘reality’ is showing up with particular insistence now.

Emergencies and crises tend to bring the interdependence of all things into clearer, and more relevant, focus. On a macro-scale, Climate Change does that. On a micro-scale, responding to Covid in the workplace does that.

We're all embedded in a worldview that purports to ‘simplify’ the world into manageable parts (if this sparks an interest, go to this piece from last week). Consequently, things look endlessly complicated. Let’s call this a ‘straight’ worldview.

The Role of Attributes in Building 'Team'

In a 'straight' world, where there is a direct path between where we are and where we want to be, we look to Hierarchy and Skills to pull-together the right team. The kind of person you are is secondary.
In a world of interdependence and complicity, we need to flip this and focus first on the kind of person you are, then the skills and organisational position you bring. 
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Why is this?

Teams work because everyone knows their role and leverages their special abilities to produce magic. The key is that each player in the team knows their role.
I call this their ‘relatedness’. Different than our relationships (which are based on the past and their feelings and affinity). Relatedness is based in the future, and the promises we make to each other about who we will be and what we will do (watch this video on this distinction. I called it "how to change people").
Relatedness is caused by the agreement that you'll be the boss and I'll be the employee, no matter how we feel about it. That means we agree to speak to each other in a particular kind of way, to say or not say particular kinds of things. We also promise (explicitly or implicitly) to do certain things - our job, get paid, be loyal, protect each other etc.

When Hierarchy Fails to Deliver

Hierarchy and skills work when we can identify a straight line between where we are now and where we want to be. But when interdependence reigns (essentially all complex, non-technical projects) any attempt to simplify the situation and bring what we love to call rigor and clarity to it tends to cause the very confusion we were hoping to avoid.

We still need a relatedness that defines how we work together, but it cannot be provided by the traditional sources: hierarchy and (technical) skills. So, on what basis do people make their promises to each other about what they will bring to the team? 
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We do it intuitively!

A few months ago I delivered a training program for the Executive Team of a regional Water Corporation. Much of the first session was on this and associated distinctions. At one point the Managing Direction had a powerful moment of revelation and said something like:

Oh… that’s exactly what I’ve been doing!

I employed most of you guys not because of the skills you have (though of course I need them too), but really because of the kind of person you are!

In a world of interdependence, we need people who have certain attributes that allow them to work with and navigate change. We can call it flexibility, self-reflection, openness to feedback… I could go on. In different circumstances and roles the attributes people need to bring forth are different (a really important piece a lot of people in my position ignore) and the ability to change gear, change your approach, change yourself is probably the most fundamental of them all.

I cannot emphasise how important doing this thinking is; focusing attention on the fundamental attributes that matter in teams dealing with flux and change.

Focussing people’s attention on the attributes that matter most doesn’t diminish the importance of hierarchy and skills, it ensures that are used more effectively.

This perspective gives people a connection with each other that goes beyond their ‘relationship (how they feel about each other). They get to see the bigger picture/project they are working together towards and recreate the relatedness of the team on a new, more powerful foundation

This is what my friend and I talk about for the first half of the call!

For the second half we talked about the importance of how you are feeling… but that’s another story.

FYI, this conversation is a big piece to chew on. I do train teams in this but I'm happy to offer some short conversations with people. If you want to chat, you can find 45 mins HERE.

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Photo by Hassan OUAJBIR on Unsplash
An exercise to do in a couple of minutes that’ll really bring this home (you can do it with your staff too):

1. Think of the most inspiring people in your life. Famous leaders everywhere (hopefully starting with your mum). Write a list.

2. Next to each name, write why you put them on the list. What is it about these people that makes them stand-out for you?

3. Have a look at your whole list and think about what is standing out for you

I bet that even is the people on your list had great skills and/or Hierarchical authority, that's not what you wrote done next to them!

4. Now to the same thing with your existing team...