Work Systems - Limits to Control

Jul 15, 2020

Work systems! Here we go again, I want to review some of the pragmatic ideas I’ve put forward in the previous articles at the start.

First, remember that I see the primary purpose of a good work system as building alignment and relationships. 

This gives rise to a couple of ideas:

1. A work system should focus on building alignment around those things that are most important within that particular environment, and developing relationships with the right people, to create the outcomes the organization intends.

2. A work system should not aim for perfect alignment, but should instead focus on having most of the people mostly aligned most of the time

Second, I stated that I believe a work system should be built to support the people who are actually building whatever it is you need to achieve your goal - where the rubber meets the road, you could say.

3. A work system should be built to serve the people who are doing the work.

After diving in, I started capturing a problem that emerges: typically, the people who are building and requesting the work system and have intentions around what it should do are NOT the people who are doing the work. And often, rather than focusing the work system on meeting the needs of those people doing the work, the work system gets built to solve the needs of the middle management or senior leadership levels.

Now, I don’t want to knock having someone who is an expert in organizational design and human systems build your work system instead of someone who is an expert in engineering, or carpentry. Building out a work system takes a skillset that not everyone has. I would not want an organization trying to teach everyone how to build work systems. You just don’t need that many of them. 

This to me ties back into the reasons why work systems exist, and how often that purpose is lost. If the purpose of the work system is alignment, and you know the most important people to align are those that are actually going to do the work, then if you follow through you’ll start by trying to figure out what would help align the people doing the work, and go backwards from there to how do you get that information to them.

But I made some assumptions based on how I believe you develop and maintain a healthy work system. In many organizations, a work system is not about alignment. Honestly, the most common reason I see organizations wanting a work system is control. Sometimes it might be predictability or knowability (both of which a good work system can provide as a consequence of building healthy alignment). But control is often at the root of a work system. The origin of many work systems follows a pattern something like, “OK, we’ve been working hard (we think), but we’re not sure what we’ve got or when we’ll be done, and may have even less of an idea of what we want the outcome to be of all the hard work we hope we’re doing. Uh oh, we are going to run out of money/time/resources! How do we get the teams to do what we want them to do with what we’ve got left? Let’s introduce some processes so we can make sure the right stuff gets done.” 

I’m not sure if you can relate to that, but I certainly can. And I also want to call out that this response from human beings makes a ton of sense, as well as the emergent nature of the resulting system. By the way, I do believe that work systems should be emergent! Most holistic systems designed up front end up not doing what you intended, and often don’t have good mechanisms for recognizing the systemic failure! Instead, random individuals get blamed when the ‘perfectly designed’ system doesn’t work. I’ve done this to teams, by the way. Having the work system emerge from an actual need can be a lot better!

So it is healthy for us to be going along with as lightweight a work system as we can get away with. But when we realize it is too lightweight, our response is often to seek to control the situation, reduce the uncertainty, and get to a point where we ‘know what’s going on’. I’ll shorten all of that to a desire for control.

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I listened to a keynote years ago from a pretty smart guy named Harrison Owen. He talked about some fundamental truths of human organizations, and these absolutely changed my life as a professional leader and developer of organizations and human systems. I’m going to cover this briefly, because it relates to the idea and feasibility of wanting control. This was a long and awesome keynote, I’ll just try to hit the main takeaways for me.

Harrison Owen walked through a set of if->then type statements that led to an interesting conclusion for human systems. His first statement is that human systems are open systems. In other words, what is ‘inside’ a human system doesn’t stay the same. There are a ton of reasons for this. Ideas occur somewhat spontaneously, people might leave or join with new information, and most of the people at your organization go home and have thoughts and read books and forget things and etc. 

If we agree that human systems are open systems, then it follows that they are in a state of flow. Flow occurs whenever there is movement. With humans bringing in different ideas or content that change how they and others interact comes movement at multiple levels. Next, if human systems are open, and therefore in a state of flow, then human systems are self-organizing. This is a result of humans being intelligent, independent agents within the system. So as they see the flow in the system, they react and organize themselves around what’s happening and the others within the system. 

This was all mindblowing enough, but what followed rang so true to my entire experience building teams, processes, and systems to get things done. Harrison Owen’s eventual conclusion to these traits of human systems was that for said systems, controls are emergent rather than designed. The system is open, in a constant state of flow, and self-organizing. Controls you attempt to push into the system or build in up front, the externally designed controls, conflict with and are subsumed by the propensity for human self-organization. 

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We’re the ants.


No matter how much effort you take trying to create a perfect system that will generate exactly what you want, as soon as you hand it to independent human agents operating in a flowing, open system they are going to self-organize within whatever your constraints are, often in ways you did not expect! No matter what controls you attempt to insert into a structure, you will see people within that structure self-organize and continue doing whatever it is they are incentivized to do. 

The nature of emergent controls rather than upfront designed controls means that the right way to understand how to control or guide a human system is through empirical methods. You observe and experiment and see what happens.OK, so this leads to a difficult conclusion for a lot of leaders: when you attempt to create a work system to give yourself control, even if you achieve it, it’s usually not going to give you the results you want. By attempting to create work systems with the specific goal of being able to direct things, you run headlong into the human individual with all its idiosyncrasies. And often you were trying to give yourself control over the system in order to prevent people from doing the wrong thing. But because you’ve focused on control and what people are doing, rather than alignment and why you are doing anything at all, now people begin to operate within the constraints of your system in ways you did not predict.

I’m thinking of an example from my time in the military that I want to share to really show why alignment trumps control when building work systems.

One of the core tenants of the U.S. military planning process is the idea of commander’s intent. Each Soldier operating in the U.S. Army is supposed to know not just their mission, but the intent of their commander, and their commander’s commander. “Two levels up”, that’s what you should be aware of. This is incredibly practical, because warfare is not just cooperative, it also has an enemy that is trying to ruin your plan. So when things go haywire, the army who has a commander that sits on top and has to dictate to everyone what to do is insanely handicapped vs an army of Soldiers who know the bigger picture, or intent, of what they are doing and can act independently to try to achieve that outcome. What you see in the most effective militaries in the world is distributed decision-making and a lot of power (and training) invested into the leaders at the lowest level. It isn’t about control, it is about autonomous and aligned units, and it is insanely difficult to achieve at scale.

Note how in this example, it is the individual Soldier and leaders at the lowest level, the ones who will actually take the right hill or occupy the right part of the city or hold the line at the right time that need to know what they are doing and why it matters. Because in the reality of a battlefield, things happen far too quickly for any commander to make the right calls for everyone. 

Our world is changing all the time. Our audiences are changing, our products are changing, what is resonant feels different constantly. We may not think that we have to deal with as much change as a battlefield, and perhaps we don’t, not quite that much. But the idea of every individual in an organization knowing what the purpose is and being able to independently move towards it over the idea of a centralized authority dictating action will lead you to be more successful. And that means you need to align those individuals that are your ‘front line’. Alignment will trump control. People won’t do exactly what you expect, but you might just end up where you wanted to go.


Benjamin Carcich