I once accepted an invitation to give a brief, after-dinner talk on informal coalitions to a group of senior managers in the oil industry. As it turned out, the intention was to punctuate the dinner with a number of mini-inputs, including my guest contribution. My task was to fill the gap between the main course and pudding!
On reflection, it seemed to me that speaking in between courses was highly appropriate. And I used this as an opportunity to get people to focus on what I called the ‘in-between-ness’ of organizational dynamics. That is, on the things that don’t appear on the ‘printed menu’, so to speak, but which have a major impact on whether or not the organization is successful.
Where we have starters, mains and puddings at dinner, we have things like strategies, structures and processes in our organizations. And it’s these ‘things’ that mainstream management tells us to focus on.
Instead, I asked the managers to think for a few minutes about what is actually going on in between these ‘things’:
… what, for example, is going on ‘in between’ the set-piece announcements of new strategies, structures and systems?
… what’s going on ‘in between’ the formal interactions involved in planning and managing structured change plans, programmes and projects?
… or what’s going on ‘in between’ the setting of official policies, processes and procedures and the carrying out of these by people ‘on the ground’?
By ‘in-between-ness’, I mean the everyday conversations and interactions that take place constantly throughout all organizations - and beyond their formal boundaries. Some of these occur in formal settings, of course, with structured agendas and people acting out their formal roles and relationships. Most, though, take place informally.
These informal exchanges will often surround specific formal events (such as people agreeing positions in advance of a meeting or discussing what they really think about things during breaks in the formal proceedings). At other times, they will just reflect the general life of the organization (such as informal working arrangements, social cliques, gossiping, networking, political influencing, chance interactions, private one-to-ones and so on). Although none of these informal arrangements are reflected in organization charts, reported in official documents or referred to in formal meetings, they have a powerful impact on what actually gets done in organizations, how it gets done and what outcomes arise.
So ‘in-between-ness’ matters. Change and performance happens as a result of the everyday conversations and interactions that people have with each other in the organization and beyond. It’s through these local interactions (i.e. ‘in between’ themselves and others) that people make sense of what’s going on and decide how they are going to act. And it’s through the widespread interplay of these myriad local interactions that overall outcomes emerge. This process is not in the gift of managers – or anyone else - to control. And it will go on with or without managers’ active involvement. As relatively powerful participants in this ongoing process, they will unavoidably influence what happens, of course – whether intentionally or otherwise. Their task then becomes one of seeking to shift the patterns of conversation and interaction, and to build active coalitions of support for particular courses of action. As the patterns of conversation change, so will people’s behaviours and so, therefore, will the organization.
Striving to do the formal, structured things better and get them ‘right’ is important, of course – though often here, less is more! But managers are likely to have a more meaningful effect on outcomes if they put as much - if not more - effort into getting to grips with the hidden, messy and informal stuff that’s going on ‘in between’ these seemingly more sophisticated aspects of their role.
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