Recently as I was listening to a critique of the work done in response to the latest natural disaster when the following comment was made: “We need to get the first responders to talk to each other.”
On the surface, this may sound like a reasonable request and something that we should expect from a group of people dedicated to helping others during emergencies. Yet if we look at this request systemically, we can see that much work is needed to enable people to work together and coordinate their efforts—whether it’s in response to a natural disaster, coordinating care of patients in hospitals, or managing just about any complex organizational effort.
For many years, we focused on training people well, providing good policies and incentives, and relying on mangers to provide the direction and supervision to ensure that the work was done as expected. In many organizational situations, those support mechanisms are no longer enough. We cannot assume that well-trained people dedicated to doing their best work can address the growing complexity of multiple systems and the resulting—often conflicting—needs that arise.
Workers today need to do more than their jobs. They need to understand the dynamics of the systems within which they work. They need to know enough about the work of others to recognize the intersections of their work and the larger system. They need to understand not only their priorities, but the priorities of others with whom they interact and those that define the organizational system. If people don’t see and understand the system and its dynamics, they don’t know how to interact.
Highly skilled workers cannot always accomplish their tasks and attend to the interconnections that need to be made. The management role used to focus on these interconnections, but even managers have difficulty maintaining current knowledge of the system and its multiple priorities because the manager’s scope of responsibility has increased greatly. Many managers spend all of their time in meetings trying to contribute to the interconnections and have less time to provide direction and oversight.
I was speaking with one manager in a large corporate setting recently who communicated his reality. He stated that he starts his day with about 30 minutes to review his calendar and prepare for upcoming meetings. He is in meetings for the next nine to 10 hours—often on the phone and without breaks. If he brings his lunch to work, he can eat while in a meeting. When he finishes up the meetings at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m., he takes another one to two hours to answer voicemails and email messages, which generally number well over 100 a day. He manages a large number of people performing critical tasks and never feels he is on top of his work. He has multiple priorities and is expected to manage to them. The challenge he faces is that the priorities often conflict.
Much of a manager’s time is spent putting out fires caused by the gaps in the system—or places where people have dropped the ball because they do not know how to successfully hand it off to others. The people on the front lines are often doing their best given the information and knowledge they have. Many of them see the gaps and know when and how they are contributing to the problems, but they don’t know how to address them. Escalating problems up to managers is not always the best solution as managers clearly don’t have the capacity to create systemic solutions.
So, what is a possible way out of this vicious cycle? First we must recognize there are no easy answers or quick solutions. Before any systemic change can be achieved, people need to first understand that they are not just working with parts of the system; they need to see how their part is interconnected to the whole. They need to understand the critical relationships involved and have time to develop them in a way that make handoffs easy to accomplish. When people are able to see how they are a part of an interconnected whole and have an opportunity to form close relationships with their peers, their work becomes more meaningful. They feel valued, significant, and strive to support each other in meeting the need of the customer, community, patient or whoever is the beneficiary of their work. When they have a better sense of the whole, they are more likely to make the right decisions when balancing conflicting priorities.
Clearly it takes time to develop relationships and learn the dynamics of a system. This time spent upfront greatly diminishes the time spent putting out fires or correcting errors. In many cases, it can save lives. At this point in time—when complexity is increasing rapidly and few people feel confident to meet the needs and expectations of their positions—taking the time to build relationships and gain knowledge of organizational systems is an investment we desperately need to make.