Increasing relational productivity

What management *should* be doing

Photo by christie greene on Unsplash

Time to pay down some “writing debt” and cover some good articles I came across last year, that stood the (short) test of time between now and then. Starting with this BCG piece, I made reference to in my 2020 wrap-up

How the lockdown unlocked real work

I have my qualms with some of the framing and word choices. Specifically, the careless use of terms like complexity and complicatedness just because they sound less judgmental than what they’re really trying to describe: bureaucracy. But I digress. 

The core piece of value in the article is its “side box”, which highlights “complementarities” — when one factor of production increases the contribution of the other factor of production to the overall outcome — as a core reason for the existence of organizations in the first place. It then introduces a distinction between two types of complementaries: proximity and relational: 

  • Proximity complementarities — complementaries that accrue directly from physical co-location, such as the scale economies made possible by the steam engine or the assembly line — both requiring grouping people together. The discipline of management developed in this context and the close control of work it made possible. 
  • Relational complementarities — complementarities that accrue from the alignment and coherence of the actual behaviors of each node and the way it increases the contribution of every other node. This is articulated visually in a post I covered a couple of years ago titled “People as Vectors” and more abstractly in “Bounded Specialization”.

Most business models rely on both types of complementarities, but because the former is far more visible, organizations tend to over-rely on it, assuming that proximity will make up for any gaps in the productive content of the relationships. Proximity functions as a misleading proxy for working effectively together.

For example, avoiding the hard work of creating trust and explicit commitments around deliverables, knowing that if anything doesn’t go according to plan, we can just walk down the hall and talk it out. 

The pandemic has abruptly swept away organizations’ ability to (over)rely on proximity. The pace of change prevented organizations from applying a bureaucratic procedural response. Instead, they had to strengthen relational productivity by increasing the degree to which people interact effectively and work together in the service of a collective task. Three levers play a role in this endeavor: leadership, engagement and cooperation. 

Leadership: managers add value by getting people to do what they wouldn’t do spontaneously in the absence of interaction with them. Specifically, by maximizing alignment between the individual’s actions and what the organization as a whole is trying to accomplish: navigating across multiple priorities, and identifying and removing blockers. Tactically, that requires having conversations with a broader set of nodes in the network (not just direct reports) and having those conversations focused on creating clarity around a core set of questions: “What are your current priorities, the things you must accomplish, the battles you must win?”, “What are you worried about?”, “Do you feel like you know what you need to know?”, “If not, do you know who to go to get what you need?”.

Engagement: defined here as the degree and intensity of individuals’ connectedness to the organization and its goals, to the roles they occupy in the organization, and to the tasks they perform. The tactics called out here included anchoring the organization’s day-to-day activities to a higher goal, organizing work around time-limited and iterative sprints — focusing people on the immediate priorities that they can control and completing commitments they’ve made to the team, rather than on the uncertainties they can’t control. 

Cooperation: defined here as the process by which people put their autonomy, initiative, and judgment in the service of a collective purpose or task — which sometimes means compromising their own goals or needs for the greater good. The tactics mentioned here included explicitly building trust among far-flung team members, by giving everyone on the team enough air time, and identifying and proactively managing interdependencies.

The evidence presented for decomposing relational productivity to these three levers was somewhat lacking, and the tactical examples under each seem partial at best. 

Nonetheless, the distinction between proximity and relational complementarities and the interaction between the two is a powerful lens to looking at and making sense of organizational behavior and the initial levers for starting to strengthen relational productivity are a good starting point as any for further exploration down that path. 

Increasing relational productivity

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