I have worked in many different types and sizes of orgnanisations, sometimes in several ages of the organisations growth; and I’ve noticed something that I don’t really understand.
When an organization passes the number of people where everyone cannot know everything (20?) something weird happens. You have probably seen it, or maybe (like me) even said this. I have never seen this not happen.
Different parts of the company doesn’t seem to understand each other any more. Typically higher levels (“management”) and lower levels, but it can also be department to department.
Here’s my conundrum; the people saying this are intelligent people trying to do their best for a common goal. Sometimes they have decided that common goal together.
I don’t have a solution for this, but I needed to write my thoughts down to flush them out of my system. I’ve carried this for years. And you can read it, if you want :)
The problem is best summed up in a couple of statements, they go something like this:
The “management” doesn’t know how things actually are.
I would not have done that / I would not have done it like this. Idiotic!
I’ve never heard about this before. It’s not properly communicated!
You recognize this? Or maybe you’ve been “management” and then said (I’ve been here too):
Why don’t they get this? It’s totally aligned with our strategy Y.
Just do it already. We don’t have time to involve everyone in every decision
They don’t have the large picture
We have already communicated that - many times over. I don’t understand how we could be clearer
I have seen this happen many times. In fact, as I wrote, I’ve never seen this not happen.
I have never seen people willing trying to destroy the company or doing something that they know would cause confusion.
Let’s consider the point of view of the “management” first; with which I mean a higher level in the organization, considering more perspectives and broader strokes.
What I’ve experienced at these positions is that I (I’m writing
I here but I’ve never been alone - read
- often have many many more questions, problems or situations to address than I can handle
- most of the things that reach me are urgent, and often problems
- rarely do I actually find time to think about strategy and broader stroke in a calm and structured manner. Unless we take separate days for this and then play catch-up with my backlog for weeks.
Now, I have also been “on the floor”, doing work one parts of the company’s overarching goals. Here
- realized that the problem is often much more complicated than I initially thought
- realized that I rarely can move without dependencies with others and bumped into their conflicting goals
- discovered that the priorities that I have for the thing that I’m building is hard to sell on others that have other priorities.
I’m convinced that one part of this problem has to do with distance. Distanc between:
- the details and the bigger picture
- the decision and the effects of the decison
- deep knowledge about one area and superficial knowledge about many/all areas
And I don’t really know how to solve this, since involving everyone in everything is unreasonable after 10-20 people. Already at 10 people I’ve lost interest about every detail in everyone else’s job. Not because I’m not interested but since I cannot keep up.
Knowledge deficit fallacy
Another part of this problem is probably knowledge deficit fallacy, which states:
if they/you only knew what I know you would act like me. Since I'm acting logically and base my actions on that information.
That is not true. It’s a myth. Given the same information people will still interpret the facts differently, act on previous expriences and understand, in the end making different decisions.
It’s quite a though pill to swallow - very annoying to be honest. Since it basically means that we cannot inform our way out of “the problem”.
Slicing the org the right way - will that help?
The Agilist in me tells me that this is a slicing problem, best described with the Inverse Conway Maneuver.
In short; Mel Conway noted (in 1968!) that they way that we organize will affect what we build. He noted that four teams making a compiler (a computer program turning source code to machine code) inevitable became a four-phase-compiler.
This can be used to our advantage and create the teams around the flows and value streams that we want to see. Teams for frontend, backend and database will build something very different than teams for Registration, Browsing products and Ordering.
In the context of this post, aligning teams around value flows will help quite a lot. This ensures that information about the values that we are creating will be everyone’s business.
But cross-cutting concerns (like platform related changes, going into new markets or pivoting the product) will still suffer from the same problems that I’ve listed above. I know because I’ve seen this in action.
Best in class
The best I have expreienced in this regard is Spotify. And that is also a place where just about everyone gets a information overload shock the first weeks. When I worked there, 5 years ago, they had over 4000 Slack channels. And that is in addition to mailing lists, dashboards, documents and wikis etc. They are communicating like crazy - the only problem is to try to wade through it and know what is important.
(Before I continue - I heard the same sentiments and statements as above even at Spotify. Just a little bit less)
The differences that I saw at Spotify that I haven’t seen elsewhere are a few:
- They had processes in place to coordinate the overall priorities of the company. They only ran 9 big projects and they were stackranked. Everyone in the company knew and adhered to that priority
- They had a culture of “always assume positive intent” that was very apparent and concrete. This helped a lot as even confusing messages could be understood if you started with an idea about “it’s probably well intendended”
- There was a strong culture of sharing and giving input. At Spotify, if you asked for comments on a document and sent it to 10 people - you got a lot of comments. People naturally saw this as part of their job.
These simple tools and strong culture helped Spotify to overcome some of these problems.
A sad summary
As I wrote in the beginning - I don’t have any solutions for this. I have never not seen the disconnect between “us” and “them” happen. But it puzzles me why and how that happen and I want to try to bridge that gap a bit.
If you have any good ideas on how to do that better - please let me know. I’m dying to hear more about it.