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The hardest thing to achieve is balance. A balance between an agile and plan-driven approach. Between homogeneity and diversity in the group. Between open and closed mindedness. Between private and public information flows. Between being strong like a brick or absorbing like a sponge.
It is also the hardest thing to describe or to explain. It is easier to say “just use this set of rules” or “just let the people hang out and flow all naturally” then to provide the real answer: it depends.
Within projects, you have processes that are highly scripted. Like a formal audit. You also have elements that are very low on structure. Like a brainstorm session.
You can use a mix of culture, rule sets and structure to provide a proper balance. That is my point in “Border Control. How Culture, Conversations And Structure Can Protect You And Your Project.”
Rhythms, Boundaries, Containers.
In this area one article has influenced me enormously. It’s from 1990. It’s about software for virtual groups. It’s called: “Rhythms, Boundaries, and Containers: Creative Dynamics of Asynchronous Group Life” by Trudy and Peter Johnson-Lenz.
In this post I will provide a summary of some of its content that is specifically relevant to the topics discussed on this blog. All quoted material is from this article.
Trudy and Peter Johnson-Lenz “… are exploring a middle path bridging two prevailing approaches to groupware: (1) mechanism — making groups work through the use of explicit forms and procedures, and (2) context or open space — allowing groups to self-organize.” Although they talk about groupware, software for virtual collaboration, I find the article relevant to any group collaboration. The fact that they focus on asynchronous and aspatial collaboration makes it even more important in our global and virtual environment.
Instead of focusing on one approach, mechanism or context, they provide us with the elements that social systems are made of. “Rhythms, boundaries and containers are primitives — universal, fundamental patterns from which all life is built — including our social life.”
If you place context at one end of the balance and mechanism at the other end, the authors provide us with intermediate elements on the scale. Elements we can use to create the right mix for a certain group in a specific situation. This are the elements from a facilitators toolbox.
They are white space – at the “context” end of the scale – timing, rhythms, boundaries, containers and procedures – at the “mechanism” end of the scale.
You can view a “white space” as structureless space or piece of time where something can emerge. An opportunity for anything creative to happen. There is no specific structure, just the opportunity for people to connect and self-organize.
As explained by Johnson-Lenz: “If existing forms seem rigid and stuck, more space may allow new forms to emerge. If lively interactions are not occurring frequently enough, a smaller space may gather the energy together. If the group is grasping for answers, more time may allow new insights to emerge. If people are scattered, shorter timelines may focus their activity.”
Transitions are an important part in social systems. The transition from being a young boy to becoming a man. From single life to married life. Entering a group and leaving a group. In this element it’s about marking transitions, especially beginnings and endings.
Life has a heartbeat. A pulse. 24hrs in day. 7 days in a week. Recurring periods. A daily standup in your project. A daily build in your software development process. As Andrew Sparks mentioned in a guest post a few years ago: “Generically we speak of successful, high-performance projects (or factories or other team operations) as “humming” or “ticking like a Swiss watch”. Every successful project I have ever seen has had its own pace and rhythm.”
In the words of Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz: “The function of rhythms is to provide appropriate patterns for periodic contact and participation (…) Effective rhythms are a dynamic balance between slow and fast. If members do not feel connected with each other, a faster rhythm may bring them closer. If too much is happening, a slower rhythm may work better.”
I am a big fan of boundaries. Creating boundaries with the language you use, the social cues you sent out, the identity you choose to express. If people like it, they are in, if not, not. Whatever! The manifestation of identity and culture works as border.
In the meaning of Johnson-Lenz: “The functions of boundaries include defining group membership; delineating group identity; and marking group rhythms, beginnings, and endings.”
Having fast or slow rhythms may function as a boundary. Transitions can function as a boundary.
Boundaries have multiple sides. In-Out. Here-There. Now-Later. Me-You. Two specific boundaries we know so well in projects are: You-Project and Project-Organization. Often boundaries create friction on both sides.
Boundaries don’t have to be created like the Atlantic Wall. Sometimes they are entirely fixed. Other times they function more like a membrane, allowing information, sound or sunlight to enter.
Your project is a temporary system within the host organization. Think about it as a hospital tent set up in a field. It allows the doctors to perform surgery isolated from what happens around them. It provides focus and shelter. It’s not a fortress. The walls are thin and allow for surrounding noises to enter. It’s put up when needed and taken away when it has served its purpose.
Using the terms of the Johnson-Lenz article: the walls are the boundaries. The tent is the container. “The function of containers is to hold the energy, life, identity, or “presence” of the group.” The container will hold the white space and the procedures. To stay within the tent analogy: a tent is what we need to hold our culture. Or, if you like, we fill the tent with our culture like a hot air balloon.
This is the place where we allow the balance between homogeneity and diversity. This is the place where we have our group culture.
The procedures make up the rule set the group members have to follow. They make up the rules of engagement during group interactions.
Shrinkonia. And Temporary Tribes.
I encourage you to read the original article in detail, as it provides many insightful examples and theories.
The primitives described in this post form the basis for the Temporary Tribes concept: a change/project management strategy focused on culture and using an “adventure travel” metaphor. Many of my Shrinkonian exercises operate on these primitives.
You see. It’s all connected.
Image by David Stanley.