work as a social process

Work as a social process

Peter Checkland says that human activity systems or work systems can be regarded as a set of activities and a set of relations between the people doing them. This idea is also a central element of Systems Leadership Theory, framed around the notion that “Work is a social process”. By social process I mean the interaction between humans to achieve a purpose.

Work occurs across three different dimensions, Technical, Commercial and Social. The Technical and Commercial aspects often get all the attention and the Social aspect is somewhat ignored. The remarkable failures of countless Mergers & Acquisitions and other change programs are surely a testament to that – it all looked great on paper…

Unfortunately the social dimension of work is often overlooked as it has a profound impact on the output of human undertakings. It is often assumed that it will look after itself. Sometimes it is outsourced to HR or the more fancy labelled “People & Culture” team to deal with the soft people stuff. Reality is that the soft stuff is the hard stuff. It is hard partly because we don’t have the same degree of shared language for the social processes as we have for the technical and commercial processes.  The quote below from Brigadier R Macdonald captures the importance of understanding the social dimensions of work.

“When human beings are part of the solution, a technical solution is no solution at all”

socialising-with-a-purposeImage Courtesy of Gaping Void

The Decision Making model and the Task Assignment model are both designed to support a good social process by providing clarity around context and purpose and clarity around expectations, both in term of behaviour and output/outcomes. Poor communication is often cited as a big issue in many organisations, a remarkable scenario since every resume I have every seen suggests that everyone is a fantastic communicator.

I think that the “poor communication” issue is not so much a personality or people issue, it is more likely to be a system issue. Having shared language and shared models for decision-making and task assignment can support better communication by providing clarity for both sender and receiver about what is intended. This can greatly enhance the two-way flow that is critical for communication to actually occur. Stafford Beer made the point that successful communication is only achieved when the objective of the message has been actualised as intended, not when the message itself has been sent (which tends to be the view of many – “but I sent them an email…”)

Our over reliance on written communication to speed things up often ends up delaying things as misunderstandings and different interpretations are not realised until it is too late. How many emails does it take to organise a meeting when one phone call would have sufficed?

A good written task assignment is therefore only a vehicle to support the social interaction that is often essential for providing full clarity about expectations. The social process might take a few days to complete depending on the complexity of the task and the people involved. Some people need to reflect on the information provided and may need time to do this before accepting the task.

An essential process that I have not made explicit in the decision making model and only hinted at in the task assignment model is the Review process. To enable a learning environment we have to continuously review our work – both successes and failures. A review can happen at any time, however, tasks and decisions should always end with a review.

The purpose of the review is primarily to learn about the social process, what worked well, what did not work well, what led to person x making this decision etc.? The technical output is usually the easy bit to review, did you deliver what you said you would, yes or no? The point here is to review the judgments used to get the results and learn.

foundations of good managerial leadership

Over the last year I have with a colleague of mine (Richard Barber), been working on a framework for leadership development built on a strong theoretical base but practical in its application. In this post I will outline the elements of the framework and in subsequent posts I will discuss the parts and how they fit together. The individual parts draw from a number of great organisational thinkers across different disciplines and together I think they provide a great practical guide for leaders at any level. I will try and provide links to the original material to the extent possible and maintain a high standard of referencing.

Some of the material come from a guide a wrote for a client a while back as part of a project designed to build operational leadership capability but as per usual, my thinking has evolved since then and I thought blogging would be a good way to my own thinking fresh. Hopefully these posts will serve a dual purpose; firstly to support my own thinking and development, and secondly, should anyone else happen to stumble upon it and see some value in it well then that fantastic. I would be delighted if you would comment on anything that you think is incorrect or unclear in anyway.

The topics I intend to cover are:

Managerial Leadership

  • Leadership AND Management
  • Decision making
  • Task assignment
  • Performance conversations

Understanding the work

  • Enhancing system performance
  • Enhancing people performance

Leading change

  • Issues with common change management methods
  • Systemic change

Planning

  • Understanding the domain (Cynefin)
  • Sensitive risks

leadership_foundations

Link

web discussion – is management needed

link to a conversation I am having with Jan Höglund on his blog regarding the need for management. There is a lot of conversations in my circles around poor management and the need to change our view of it to create better organisations. Many IT people using Agile for software development are bumping into constraints from the ‘command and control’ style of management. They are certainly not the only ones banging their heads against the wall and feeling frustrated with this way of operating. Having said that I think the move to a radical rethink and restructure like Sociocracy seems like a step that might be too big for most organisations, at least as a first step. Especially since there are alternatives that make use of a hierarchical structure AND provides clarity of purpose, roles, values uses devolved decision making at its core and when implemented does create positive organisations. http://tinyurl.com/nz3tuho

Link

Dynamic Governance Summary

The link provides an overview of the consent decision making process used in sociocracy – a different way of thinking about organisational governance, leadership, and structure. It is a fascinating concept and one that I am excited to learn more about. The fact that it is based on cybernetic principles makes all the time spent getting my head around Beer’s work on the Viable System Model even more well spent.