Work Systems – The Who

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Ever asked questions like, “Why do we do have all these meetings, who are they even for?” or “Does anyone get value out of this process?” or  “Do these documents I make even matter?” There could be a lot of reasons why these questions are asked, and I want to talk about one: incorrectly choosing the primary audience the processes (work system) are designed to serve inside an organization, and how that gets twisted up.

In my first article about work systems I talked about the reasons why they exist. Here’s a quick refresher: A work system contains content, groups, interaction points, and artifacts that are necessary because of a tendency in human organizations to become misaligned. In a perfect world, everyone would know what to do and be moving towards the same objective all the time. This is untrue in our reality. In the real world alignment about many aspects of what is being attempted is in a constant state of entropy. Direction is hard to build at the start and constantly drifts even when achieved. A work system is intended to provide sufficient alignment across enough aspects for people inside an organization to mostly go in the same direction and achieve something together. It also provides a context within which people can develop relationships to collaborate effectively. How much alignment is needed and in what areas is a judgment call each organization will need to make.

In this article, I want to talk about who work systems are for. Understanding the ‘audience’ for a work system is, in my opinion, one of the biggest obstacles to creating successful work systems (the other big obstacle being not reflecting and improving, which we’ll capture at a future time). Even if there is strong theoretical understanding of who a work system is built for, the reality is that most organizations incentivize building work systems upside down. OK, I feel like I’ve said some odd things, let’s dive into them.

Every organization has some purpose in mind, whether implicit or explicit. Hopefully it is not just to make more money, because money is a means rather than an end. But regardless, companies all have a purpose. It often involves a customer or audience need (build a better gadget), or a particular exploratory goal (land on the moon). A fundamental truth of business is that everything your organization does should directly or indirectly add towards that goal/vision/mission by enabling the creation of the useful learning or value in some way. 

A work system (implicit or explicit) needs to follow this fundamental truth to be effective. However, a work system’s link to that goal is usually indirect. It is one of many different systems within organizations that enable people to do the right things in the right order in the right places so that the goal/vision/mission is realized. Examples of other indirect value adds might be your facilities organization, security systems, and time off policies. 

So I said we wanted to talk about who a work system is built to serve, because if you are going to do ANYTHING, you should understand who you are doing it for. Again, indirectly all things serve the goal or the customer via solving a problem or unlocking an opportunity. But who does it serve directly? Well, there’s a lot of different people involved in successfully reaching a goal by creating a product or whatever it is you are doing. There is often some audience or customer group. There are people working in support roles. There are people actively doing the work on products. There are leaders (these are perhaps a subset of the ‘support roles’ group). Often more local work systems might have groups of stakeholders that aren’t customers, or expert advisors. There are people working inside of other work systems who relate to outside goals in some way. 

In the first article, I said that I believe the primary purpose of work systems is to build alignment. OK, perhaps an important question then is, “Who are we trying to align?” Well, a cheap but true answer is ‘everyone’. The more people you have aligned the better your chances of reaching your goal. But who are the most important people to be aligned? I think another pragmatic idea about work systems is that they should be built to most directly serve the people who are doing the work. Because those are the most important people to align. Whether that’s aligning towards a specific solution, a way of working, the vision itself, if the people who are creating the pieces that will be assembled into the value that creates the outcome you want are aligned, that gives you a chance of succeeding. 

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So, if I have a software organization and it contains team members, and team leaders, and a layer of middle management, and a group of senior leaders, and a C-suite, and a CEO, I want my organization’s work system to be built to serve the team members. Because if they are aligned to the goal – even if no one else is – we have a shot of getting there. But if they aren’t – even if everyone else is! – we’re almost certainly doomed. 

To look at this from a team level, let’s say I have some developers, a project leader, a product leader, a discipline leader, a few expert advisors, some stakeholders, and some customers. I want to build my team work system so that the developers are the ones served first. In fact, the point of the work system is to align everyone else’s thoughts and vision into something the developers can digest and turn into reality. 

It’s worth calling out that everyone else, from the leaders to the experts to the stakeholders, are in service to the team and ideally positioned to help them create the right value because they can help align them. And then the team ultimately ends up serving the customer through creating the value. In the service industry, ‘the team’ is your front line. Flight attendants, cashiers, the geek squad, etc. In the product development industry, ‘the team’ are your engineers, or artists, or designers, or carpenters. 

So here’s the problem: most of the time, the people building the work system are not that people on the front line, nor are the creators directly incentivized to serve those people. And the people that want work systems and either build them or ask others to build them are doing it because they want something out of that system. I would argue that most work systems are built by middle management layers, and are built at the request and (unfortunately) in service of the senior leaders within an organization. There are incredibly strong incentives for this! I’ve built some work systems, and let me tell you as a team leader, middle manager, or senior leader, there are things I want out of it! And by the way, you better believe I’m thinking about if my work system is going to make my boss happy! 

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This problem of building the work system for the wrong PRIMARY audience causes a cascade of issues. Instead of trying to figure out how we get the right (and not too much) of the necessary information to the people doing the actual work, we try to figure out how to get some higher organizational level a bunch of information about ‘what’s happening’ at the layers ‘below them’ so they can make decisions, often at some ridiculously abstracted level from the actual work. Thus, work systems get designed to push information up as their primary flow, rather than as a mechanism to push vision and alignment down. 

Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying work systems shouldn’t be transparent, and shouldn’t provide information up through an organizational hierarchy. But that should be the secondary effect and information flow. Senior leaders should be low-tier customers of work systems. Still customers! Just not the most important ones.

Instead, when you are thinking about building your work system, build it in such a way that it serves the people doing the work by providing them space to work, the right information, and support. This may mean your job as a leader or even senior leader becomes different and perhaps harder (honestly, it could also make it easier). Either way, good! Because if you weren’t providing the right alignment, cover, and support to allow your teams to consistently create value in alignment towards your goal and were instead doing some other thing, my guess is you weren’t as effective as you could be! There’s more to say here, and I’ll save that for my next article.

What jumped out to you as you read this? Who do you think the primary audience of work systems should be? Have you ever experienced a work system that was supposed to be helpful but seemed like it had the wrong audience? I would love to know if you have experienced this, if you agree, and especially if you disagree and why! Thanks for reading.

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