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Does Your Team Operate Well in Complex Situations?

“Why all this fuss about relationships?”

“Yes, Mike, I do understand we need to get on with each other, but honestly, work is work, and these are not my friends. Can we move on now, please?”

That attitude works well when the world is simple and orderly. We develop best practices, manuals and SOPs. Who needs relationships? Just work to the script. The instructions are clear.

The problem is the world is probably not as simple as it used to be.

Here is a great model from Ralph Stacey:

As you can see, as long as the world is predictable and we agree on what is going on, things are simple. Simple things can be managed.

But moving out along that path where things get more uncertain and we agree less and less on what is going on, we discover that things get complicated, eventually complex, and ultimately become totally chaotic.

What is the difference between complicated and complex?

Well, a computer is complicated, but it is possible to figure it out. A bowl of spaghetti, on the other hand, is complex. You don’t know which strand leads where, so you will need to probe and sense to work it out. Suddenly, someone takes a forkful and it’s all a mystery again.

A few weeks ago, I would possibly not have gotten your attention writing about complexity, let alone chaos, but now it is obviously smack in our faces.

When looking at the evolution from simple to chaotic, it might be useful to consider what the basic organization structure is that will work for each of these stages.

When we are operating in what we call  simple, a top-down organization works quite well. The team leaders tell team members what to do. Every one of them has clearly defined roles and follow the rules; the world is predictable.

As things get complicated, we need to develop stronger links across the team. We need input from each other. My thing won't work if you are not doing your thing. Because it is complicated, we need to agree on how we are going to do what and when. We become much more dependent on each other. That means we need to communicate—a lot.

We need disagreement.

When things get complex, even further from certainty and agreement, then there will obviously be disagreement.

Thankfully—because when things are complex, we need different points of view. There are no more right or wrong—black or white answers, but options—options with different consequences. That is what makes it complex.

But in order for disagreement to work, we need solid relationships with each other. It is not helpful to think of people with different points of view from us as idiots.

When things are simple, we can get away with level one relationships—see previous blog post—basically being civil to each other. But once our environment gets more turbulent than that, we need increasingly strong relationships in order to perform optimally. There must be no fear of speaking our mind and we need to trust what others decide to do or not do when the pressure builds and speed is important.

The degree to which we feel we are in a safe work relationship will also determine how we perceive a situation. What in one situation—weak relationship—is seen as an insurmountable threat, is in another situation—strong relationship—just an obstacle to overcome.

Now, you might be wondering, “What does the organization look like in chaos?”

There are no connections and no solid center. With no connections, there are no ways to make sense of what is going on. In order to step back from chaos, we need connections that provide us with data points. With data points—perspectives, stories and experiences—we can look for patterns and pool our resources, collectively trying to make sense of what is happening and go from chaos into complexity.

Just to drive home my point: If you are not actively working on developing strong relationships across your team, you are basically only organized to cope with a world that is completely predictable. 

Good luck with that.


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Mike Hohnen, MBA is a coach, trainer, author and public speaker who supports leaders, managers and their teams in implementing the principles of the Service Profit Chain.

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