Nick Smith, in How to Set a Team on Fire, sets out some wide-ranging challenges to management orthodoxy in relation to various aspects of team and organizational performance, which are well worth reading. Two brief extracts give a flavour of this thoughts on the nature and roles of vision and conversation:
- On vision
"… I'd argue that shared visions are not all they're cracked up to be. If you think about it, the more diverse a team of people are, the less chance there is of arriving at a common vision. Diversity and a unified perspective are, to great extent, mutually exclusive. In anything but a small group, finding common purpose is nigh impossible unless you're going to select a team of me-too automatons."
- On conversation
"… conversation, is the organising principle - where we explore and resolve competing ideas until we reach agreement, which then determines what gets done and how. … when we look a little closer at the mechanics of this organising principle we see, apart from just sharing information, that there's an interplay of three other basic 'intentions' expressed within our conversations: issues we raise, requests we make and suggestions we propose. If we can make conversation a first class citizen again, and capture this flow of issues, requests and proposals, then we can self-manage the most complex of tasks and create the most wonderful things without the need for cumbersome, ham-fisted organisational tools
Look what happens whenever there's a major crisis and tools fails us. We use conversation locally to co-create the most fantastic workarounds. Conversation alone, when we understand and trust the principles, works brilliantly."
The comments that I added to the post are repeated below, so that I can keep track of my developing thinking about all things organizational from an informal coalitions perspective. To paraphrase Weick's thoughts on sensemaking in organizations, "How do I know what I think until I see what I write?":
As others have said, there’s so much of interest here and a lot which resonates with my own views on the dynamics of teams and organizations. I am particularly keen on what you elegantly describe as "[making] conversation a first class citizen"; and I also share your questioning of the value of a "shared vision".
Briefly, I see organizations as dynamic networks of conversations, through which people make sense of what’s going on and decide how to act. At all levels, these conversations take place locally (i.e. in one-to-few interactions and personal reflection). They are also self-organizing. That is, the process and themes that emerge can’t be controlled by managers – or anyone else for that matter. Only to the extent that these conversations cause people to coalesce around themes that reflect the formally articulated visions, plans and programmes will those be realized. Where other themes emerge through this ongoing process, different outcomes will necessarily arise.
If people 'sign up' to particular themes that emerge through this process, they do so because they want to, not because someone else has told them to. They are driven primarily by an attraction to a desired outcome, which they judge will be best served by aligning themselves with others who want the same thing. From this perspective, people do not have to agree on everything or ‘share’ an identical vision and set of values to make progress. They can – and do – still come together to deliver a common goal or broader agenda.
These informal coalitions of support for a particular cause or objective may have the characteristics of a ‘partnership of principle’, a ‘marriage of convenience’ or anything in between. The challenge for managers is to actively engage with this conversational process; helping to surface themes that resonate with and energize broad constituencies of people.
As part of this, I believe that it’s better to think of the leadership task of "providing vision" as an act of everyday engagement rather than as the articulation of a supposedly desired end state. That is, it's about helping people to ‘see better’, so to speak, as they go about their day-to-day work - helping them to make different sense than they might otherwise have done and to make value-adding use of the sense they've made.