How do you create an environment for great work? Where healthy self-organization happens? You notice and shape patterns. Patterns are meaningful events that repeat over time—actions and interactions, outcomes and results. That might be teams that flail and fail to deliver results. It might be conflicts that happen over and over. Or people waiting to be told what to do.
But how do you influence those patterns? Training isn’t usually enough. You have to influence the system—by attending to Clarity, Conditions, and Constraints.
A Team without Clarity
I got a call from someone concerned that one of their teams wasn’t collaborating well. They weren’t getting much done, and they argued all the time. Their manager looked at the factors that generally make up a team. They were mutually accountable, their skills were complementary, they were actually co-located and had all the tech they needed.
So their manager invested in training, hoping it would help them learn to work together. They learned conflict management skills, listening skills, and how to have crucial conversations. His hope was that with the right skills he’d begin to see healthy self-organizing behavior.
But they still bickered and wallowed and didn’t produce much of anything.
I’m sure there was value in what they learned in training. However, that wasn’t what was needed. They needed clarity about their customer and what the customer’s needs were. They needed some constraints around which persona and which workflows had priority.
Shaping Patterns in a Complex Environment
Behavior is a function of people and their environment. So, how do you change the environment? I’m using the term environment quite broadly. I mean not just the physical environment, technical infrastructure or meeting structure. I think about this as making adjustments to what people understand and expect to influence patterns of action, interaction, and results.
This may be something you do to address a problem or undesirable pattern. However, you can also do it proactively. In fact, whatever is going on in your organization is shaped by these three factors—Clarity, Conditions, and Constraints.
People know what to work on, what to work on next, and the scope of their work. By this I don’t mean they have a handy task list and a requirements document. I mean they have enough clarity to take initiative and make decisions. They know:
- How their work fits into the big picture
- Who the customer is
- The relationship the company wants with customers and employees
- The value proposition
- How the company makes money.
When people don’t have this contextual knowledge, they have two choices. They can wait to be told what to do. Or take action and make potentially costly mistakes.
This refers to people having the means to do the work—budget, facilities, equipment, access to expertise. Organizational structures and policies that support the work. If you are looking at a team, it means they have clear membership, complementary skills, they’re mutually accountable. They have the infrastructure to support collaboration—whether that is a physical team room or all the enabling technology to team across time zones.
We often think of Constraints as a bad thing: They inhibit flow and get in the way of work. However, Constraints also reduce flailing and support work. They tell you what should never be done and what should always be done.
Too many choices delay decisions. Think of all the choices in the toothpaste aisle—regular, whitening, gum care, sensitive, sensitive whitening, enamel building, with mouthwash or without. It’s overwhelming. This is one of the reasons people pick a brand and stick to it. It reduces decision fatigue. Constraints serve that purpose, too. Sometimes constraints are externally imposed—meeting a regulatory requirement, making a date because most of your sales happen in one month of the year, budget limitations. Others are chosen, carefully, and with care toward both results and patterns of interaction.
Don’t Over Constrain
But don’t over-constrain. I had a friend who was looking for a new house. Between her requirements and her husbands—price, location, commuting distance, proximity to bike paths and the airport, number of rooms, construction, garage stalls ( and this is just a partial list)—there were exactly ZERO houses that fit!
Another aspect of constraints has to do with decisions and scope of action. It’s super useful for people to understand their bounded autonomy, i.e. to know both the decisions and the parameters for the decisions delegated to them. For example, a team may have the freedom to choose their own testing tools, with a budget of $30,000. Bumping into a boundary signals the need for a conversation. Say the team uncovers a testing tool that will save them enormous time but costs $31,000. This situation triggers a conversation with the person who allocates funds, so the team can make the case for the additional expenditure.
Acting on Clarity, Conditions, and Constraints
So, back to the team I described above… a team that hadn’t delivered anything for over a year. How can we make sense of their predicament when we view it with Clarity, Conditions, and Constraints as a lens?
This team did have stable team membership and complementary skills. They were collocated, and had access to all the software, hardware and infrastructure necessary for their work. They had a budget—including a training budget. In theory, they were mutually responsible for a goal. These are conditions that generally make it likely that collaborative behavior emerges.
However, they utterly lacked clarity about what problem they were trying to solve. They were mutually responsible—but it wasn’t clear for what.
This lack of clarity contributed to conflict. They had nothing to rally around or work toward, nothing to focus on. Now, conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing… differences can lead to creativity as people consider different points of view, different priorities, different values. However, when team members spend months arguing about what the goal is—that sort of conflict is not leading to creativity. It’s a waste of time, energy and damages relationships.
A Team with Too Few Constraints
Here’s another example of a team that wallowed and bickered. When I was a corporate employee I was on an organizational design project. In the spirit of participation and ownership, the team was made up of people who actually did the work. Membership crossed areas and levels. Which I think was really commendable and innovative.
We had a goal—redesign the IT department. But was operations in or out of scope? Could we start from a clean slate, or were there some givens that weren’t going to change? What did success look like for the project? How did the executives measure success for the department? What were we supposed to optimize for in the design?
To look at it from a different angle, our goal was under-constrained, We didn’t know what decisions we could and couldn’t make.
On top of the fuzzy goal, we didn’t have a shared approach on how to do the work or even the skills to do the work—generally a necessary condition for teamwork. Which led to more flailing. The team lead went off to a week-long training course in socio-technical system design (hardly sufficient for the task, I think). However, when he came back, he shared nothing. Wouldn’t even let people see the binder from his workshop.
We didn’t produce a design. We came up with some slight process modifications. All in all, it was a disappointing experience. Redeemed only by the fact that I met Jerry Weinberg on that project. So something good came out of it.
Finding Options for Action
In both of these examples, lack of clarity, insufficient conditions, and under-constraint contributed to the pattern on the team—and the lack of results.
On the other hand, looking at these projects through this lens provides some immediate ideas on how one could make the pattern a better fit for the desired function of the group. Clarify the goal. Get people the skills they need. Put some necessary constraints around the project and the decision making authority.
And of course you don’t have to wait until the situation is in shambles. You can consider all these things when forming a team, starting a project, designing a new department, steering your entire company. You can look at your organization now, and if you see a pattern that isn’t working, ask about clarity, conditions, and constraints. Do people know what they need to know? Do they have what they need to do the work? Are they clear on what the boundaries are? See what you can adjust—No pushing, no prodding, just adjusting clarity, providing supportive conditions, and adjusting constraints. And watch what happens.
If you want a place to start, download my Managing Complexity Self-Directed Assessment. I’d be delighted to have a conversation about what you learn from it.