Bounded Specialization (and the limits of human collaboration)

Differences are at the core of any synergetic collaboration effort. The whole ends up being larger than the sum of its part, only when the collaboration leverages the ways in which the collaborators are different, rather than the way in which they are the same.

Consider the difference between two people carrying together a rock that is too heavy for one person to carry on his own, and two people brainstorming a solution to an abstract problem that one of them was not able to solve on his own. The former collaboration utilizes their similarities, while the latter utilizes their differences.

While variation and differences naturally exist in nature, recent studies suggest that specialization, which I’ll define here as the deliberate creation of differences for the purpose of more effective collaboration, is “a human innovation, drawing on our ability to learn and improve by practice, and to trade goods and services”. Ironically, this innovation was inspired by misinterpretation of the ways other animals collaborate.

This innovation has enabled humans to undertake collaboration efforts at unprecedented levels of scope and complexity such as nation states and multinational corporations.

One particular form of specialization seems to be playing a rather pivotal role in such massive collaboration efforts — multi-tiered authority structures, or hierarchies for short.

To avoid a common confusion with “dominance”, Ronald Heifetz, defines authority as “conferred power to perform a service”. Viewed through a specialization-in-support-of-collaboration lens, both parties voluntarily agree to assume “leader” and “follower” roles: “Given your know-how, I give you power to make decisions to accomplish a service, and I’ll follow these decisions as long as it appears to me that they serve my purposes.”

The critical role that authority and hierarchy play in large-scale collaboration efforts is as a mechanism to encapsulate the massive complexity of such endeavors.

But like almost everything that’s taken to its extreme form, specialization, especially of the authority type, has a dark side, which stems from the dichotomous leader/follower distinction.

The dark aspects on the leader side are often summarized as “power corrupts”, but the follower side is not free of sin either. When we fully integrate the follower role into our identity, we are more prone to counterproductive behaviors such as developing “learned helpless”, viewing ourselves as victims, not acknowledging our role in both creating the problem and finding and implementing the solution, and rebelling for the sake of rebellion.

In one of my favorite HBR pieces of all times, Chris Argyris described this dynamic beautifully in an organizational context:

There seem to be two rules. Rule number one is that employees are to be truthful and forthcoming about the world they work in, about norms, procedures, and the strengths and weaknesses of their superiors… Rule number two is that top-level managers, who play an intensely scrutinized role in the life of the company, are to assume virtually all responsibility for employee well-being and organizational success. Employees must tell the truth as they see it; leaders must modify their own and the company’s behavior. In other words, employees educate, and managers act.

How do we manage the dark side of specialization and authority? Well, I don’t think that it’s by getting rid of authority altogether, and “going flat”. That would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Until I come across an alternative solution that’s capable of addressing the complexity encapsulation challenge, paraphrasing Winston Churchill’s famous quote about democracy seems appropriate: “Hierarchy is the worst form of organizing, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.

I can think of three things that we can do instead, all acting to constrain the dynamic in various ways so I’d like to group them under the banner of “bounded specialization”.

1. Bounded by duration

Duration-based elections are a core component of modern democracies and help ensure that authority relationships are not indefinite. Progressive organizations are starting to follow suit as well and elect all members in authority positions, not just their board, to predefined terms.

2. Bounded by context

Distributing authority by narrowing its context can limit its hold on our identity. In a sense, this is an extension of the “separation of powers” concept in democracies where no single body or person has both legislative, executive and judiciary authorities. But it goes beyond that to ensure that we’re followers in some contexts and leaders in others. For example: I trust my Doctor with my medical decisions, and my Financial Advisor with my financial decisions, but I am myself an Educator, so others trust me with the educational decisions for their kids. To bring this back to organizations, this can be done by unbundling the monolithic authority often given to managers (the executive trinity) into separate roles.

3. Bounded by focus

I find this one to be the most challenging to explain, but the most critical to understand, so here goes. The idea here is to blur the dichotomous distinction of roles and responsibilities between leader and follower, manager and individual contributor, or those who hold public office and those who don’t. It’s a little easier to explain in the civil context: consider the difference between a citizen of a country and a resident of a country. They both authorized the government of that country to make decisions on their behalf. They pay their taxes, and they abide by the law. But a citizen also has a right to vote, which requires her to play a more active role in the relationship as both Heifetz and Ret. General Stanley McChrystal point out:

“The concept of social contract may be at the cornerstone of democracy, yet democracy is not so easily achieved in light of our inclination to look to authority with overly expectant eyes. In part, democracy requires that average citizens become aware that they are indeed the principals and that those upon whom they confer power are their agents. They have also to bear the risks, the costs, and the fruits of shared responsibility and civic participation. “ — Ronald Heifetz

“This critical caveat to Tocqueville’s predictions of American democratic success cuts to the heart of what makes democracy tick: a political structure in which decision making authority is — in some ways — decentralized to the voters, rather than concentrated in a monarchic or oligarchic core, requires a high level of political awareness among the public in order to function. If people are not educated enough to make informed decisions at the polls, the feedback system on which democracy is premised will not work. “ — Gen Stanley McChrystal

Now ask yourself this: “how much of our time do we invest in doing our civic duty?” not just paying our taxes and abiding by the law, but playing an active role in the civic process.

For many of us, myself included, the answer is typically “very little, to not at all”. I believe that changing that extreme dynamic in which civil servants are spending 100% of their time on civil matters and many of us spend none of our time on civil matters is critical to managing the dark side of specialization. I’m not advocating for 50–50, that would be missing the point and eliminating all the benefits of specialization. But how about 95–5? Or 99–1? The pattern is applicable to the dynamic within the organization where the distinction is between people who are working in the org (individual contributors, doing the actual work) and people who are working on the org (managers, making the organization better).

I’ll conclude with these unanswered questions: What if every individual contributor spent 5% of his time working on the org? What if every manager spent 5% of her time working in the org?

Bounded Specialization (and the limits of human collaboration)

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