[Blog] Don't count on coordination to replace shared experience

Communication and coordination alone are not remotely good enough for building trust, which matters when you change orgs.

[Blog] Don't count on coordination to replace shared experience


Consider the stakeholders whose active buy-in you need.

Now think about those others who could cause you trouble if trust is lost. That is likely a bigger group.

That bigger group is likely one with whom you don't have many shared experiences. But consider whether to add those experiences because communication and coordination alone are only enough to produce trust when you work in stable settings. When it's your job to change an org, you need much more trust, and that likely takes more shared experiences than you might even consider.

Communication alone is unlikely to be enough, unless you use tons and tons of it, in all kinds of ways.

The point

Trust matters inordinately when it's your job to change organizations, as is the case for both innovation teams and many chiefs of staff.

Shared experience produces trust.

Communication produces much less trust.

And yet, we treat communication as if it could produce trust (and its underlying influencers like understanding). It just seems so rational and elegant. Plus, who has time to yap with every stakeholder under the sky!?

But unfortunately, words alone don't remotely get across to others what makes sense to us, based on our interests, incentives, background, and understanding, inside our head.

And so, we typically under-communicate.

Worse, we often don't notice it in day-to-day business operations. That's because that context comes with existing structures, constraints, and other clarifiers. We just don't have that many options for what to do. This limits the potential for mis-communication to cause misunderstanding.

But in innovation teams and for chiefs of staff working on strategic projects that will cause significant change, that context retreats into the background. The more so, the more potential there is for misunderstanding and lack of empathy.

In our context then, the same degree of communication that would have been fine elsewhere is not remotely enough. That's why I have argued that "Acceptability/ Agreeability" work should take the same priority and time investment as all your other work. It's just necessary. For every bit of shared experience that you lose, the massively more communication and coordination you need.

Of course, this is worst for completely detached teams like skunkworks-style innovation teams.

But this problem (and the benefit of shared experiences) also show up in totally different contexts. For example, Daniel Coyle's book The Culture Code describes the same idea in the military. And Sam Walker's book The Captain Class tells us of the same thing in elite professional sports. In short, it's human.

What to do

You have 3 choices:

πŸ”— Engineer shared experience.
πŸ“‹ Invest significantly in coordination.
πŸ’₯ Accept how disconnects can hurt your work.

First, you don't need to have natural shared experiences. You can engineer them.

For example, when I led an innovation team that tested service experiences that involved physical installations (think theater set pieces), we worried about causing inadvertent customer safety problems. But there was no value in going through a formal occupational health and safety assessment. After all, we didn't even know whether users were interested in what we were imagining to create for them!

So, we simply invited the safety team over for a site visit and asked them about obvious red flags. Separated from their formal processes and requirements, they were excited to be brought in to early work. And they could see that our hacked-together "sets" were nowhere near close to production quality. Clearly, they had been invited into a true lab setting. And so they behaved nothing like "gate keepers." Instead, they marveled at the design team's ingenuity and easily focused on the major risks. I remember their lead engineer saying: "I mean, sure there'll be some things to check and validate. But overall, there's nothing here that really worries me. It's all just work when the time comes."

Second, you can always invest in coordination. Just know that you'll need loads and loads of it

Whatever communication you imagine you might need, it's not enough. Do more.

But, for example, I have seen startup CEOs do this well with their investors. One CEO made it a habit religiously to send weekly, thorough updates to investors, including unvarnished progress and difficulties. By the standards of investors, weekly communication is rather a lot. So they never felt in the dark, due to the frequency, regularity, and honesty of the updates. In short, they believed that the CEO clearly had things in hand. They never felt the urge to micro-manage. Instead, when the CEO truly needed their input, he asked, and they were sufficiently in the loop to be able to help quickly, without needing to be caught up first.

By contrast, many weekly updates that I have had to send for "stakeholders" of corporate strategic projects were also weekly, but they were not nearly as honest. Often, the project sponsor would carefully word-smith whatever I wrote, to create the impression of business as usual, with no hiccups. Unfortunately, corporate cultures also made those bland, meaningless updates a necessity, to avoid unreasonable blowback from stakeholders. But nonetheless, it was hardly trust-inducing.

Finally, it is actually an option to accept the problems you might get from team separation

Sometimes, you either just can't or don't feel you need to stay connected to your stakeholders. So far, so good.

But do yourself the favor and imagine the realistic worst case of what might happen if those stakeholders got really grouchy at you: What harm might they cause to your work? And would you be ok with that?

It might seem "reasonable" to assume that no such trouble will pop up. But organizations have a funny way of causing supposed "worst case" scenarios much more than one might imagine. Stuff goes wrong. People get mad. People act out once mad.

So only take this path if you are ok with the worst that such stakeholders might cause, if their heckles were raised.


Further reading

Coyle, D. (2018). The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. Bantam. http://books.google.com/books?id=SwtFDwAAQBAJ&hl=&source=gbs_api 

Walker, S. N. E. (2017). The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams. Random House. https://bysamwalker.com/the-captain-class/