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November 9, 2023

Joint Problem-Solving While Moving A Couch

By Gene Kim ,Dr. Steven J. Spear

This post is adapted from Wiring the Winning Organization: Liberating Our Collective Greatness Through Slowification, Simplification, and Amplification.


In our book Wiring the Winning Organization, we present two vignettes to introduce the key concepts of wiring an organization to move from the danger zone to the winning zone through the mechanisms of slowification, simplification, and amplification. These two vignettes are simple models to illustrate fundamental concepts. 

The first vignette is about two people moving a couch (which we share below). It reveals that even “brawn work” involves significant “brain work.” Even two people moving a couch requires joint problem-solving and cognition. This is to help leaders recognize that everyone is doing “knowledge work” of some form, regardless of the nature of their work in Layers 1 and 2.

We will show how leaders can help or hinder knowledge work by the decisions they make in Layer 3 (the social circuitry). It is insufficient to focus primarily on the flow of materials or information through machines, with people merely as bystanders. Rather, leaders must shape the social circuitry so that people can best engage their ingenuity and problem-solving capabilities. 

In the first vignette, we use the act of moving a couch to describe how the boundary of a group solving problems must be large enough that it is coherent, having all the people and resources needed to solve the problem. However, the boundary must also be small enough to not require large amounts of coordination. We also show how leaders must ensure the communication channels are sufficiently direct and have sufficient bandwidth to support joint problem-solving.

Vignette One: Moving a Couch, Together

Gene and Steve are trying to move a couch. This may seem like a problem that involves physical labor only. However, in order to succeed, they must collaborate to solve many important problems. These include: Where should they place their hands to lift the couch? How do they keep the couch balanced when they move? To get through a narrow doorway, do they orient the couch vertically or horizontally? To get down a narrow and winding staircase, who should go first? And should they face forward or backward?

Gene and Steve don’t need to conduct elaborate studies to answer these questions. They assess the couch and the room it’s in, lift it to get a feel for its weight and balance, and work together so their efforts are coordinated. Through trial and error and fast feedback, as well as by communicating and coordinating, Gene and Steve are able to generate the information they need to solve their problems.

As they go, there are unforeseen problems, such as balance, positioning, and pace. They resolve some issues by talking, but some are communicated by gestures—nodding in which direction to move, shifting a grip, vocalizing when the effort is too great. Regardless of how problem-solving occurs, it must be a team effort. Gene can’t just change his grip without risking Steve losing his. And Steve can’t speed up the stairs without putting Gene at risk. 

Of course, their ability to collaborate can be compromised. When the sun sets, the room where they are working gets darker. Because Gene and Steve are no longer able to see and sense what’s around them, everything takes more time. Furthermore, someone may trip over something on the floor, or someone’s finger might get pinched.

Their work may also become even more difficult when a fire alarm goes off or a car alarm starts blaring outside. This is because they are no longer able to hear each other’s concerns and corrections, reducing their ability to communicate and coordinate. 

It is important to note that the added noise does not make the task at hand more difficult, unlike with the loss of light. In this situation, it is Gene and Steve’s inability to communicate that makes it more difficult to solve problems and complete their task. 

Yet another way for their work to become more difficult is if an intermediary is introduced. Let’s say a friend tries to help, relaying messages between Gene and Steve, telling them what’s going on, what to do, how to do it, and why. Despite their best efforts, the friend may actually make matters worse. This is because the friend cannot convey information with nearly the frequency, speed, detail, or accuracy as compared with when Gene and Steve communicate directly. 

Key Concepts

Two people moving a couch together is different from two people each moving a chair. When moving the chairs, the two people can work independently. However, two people moving a couch is collaborative, requiring communication, coordination, and interaction. And when their ability to collaborate degrades (e.g., the room becomes too dark to see, too noisy to hear, or the friend intermediates their communication), their task becomes increasingly difficult.

Coherency

In the beginning, Gene and Steve worked together in a coherent environment. The conditions for doing the brain work were hospitable, which enabled them to succeed in the brawn work. Conversely, when the conditions became incoherent, the brain work was more difficult, and so too was the brawn work.

By coherent, we mean having the quality of a unified whole. The elements that interact frequently and intensely (e.g., Gene and Steve) are in the same group, and they can communicate directly and with needed frequency, speed, accuracy, and detail. This is necessary for the performance of the whole to be logical and consistent. In this case, a well-lit, relatively quiet room meant Gene and Steve could solve problems as they arose. On the other hand, a poorly lit and noisy room with an intermediary degraded that coherence, which made moving the couch much more difficult.

For now, let us state that leaders make many Layer 3 decisions about the social circuitry of their organization that create or destroy coherence. For Gene and Steve, diminishment in lighting, increase in noise, and intermediation in communications were all arbitrary events. However, in more complex situations, leaders often make decisions that deliberately or accidentally improve or impede people’s ability to make sense of their situation (e.g., the lighting), to exchange information (e.g., the noise), or communicate and collaborate directly (e.g., the intermediating friend). 

Coupling

Related to coherence, we’ll introduce another term: coupling. Elements in a system are coupled when changes in one affect the other. Gene and Steve are coupled through the couch. Gene’s actions affect not just the couch but Steve as well, and vice versa. For instance, if Gene twists his end of the couch, Steve has to adjust to compensate.

How much coupling there is determines how much coherence leaders must create so that people can collaborate. Two people moving a couch are coupled; two people each moving a chair are not (unless, of course, they have to go through the same narrow door at the same time).

Depending on conditions, even people in the same situations can have different degrees of coupling, necessitating a different drawing of the boundaries to maintain coherence.

All Work is Knowledge Work

Leaders must appreciate that all the work they are managing is knowledge work. At times, some of this work is loosely coupled, while at other times, it is tightly coupled. It is not arbitrary. Instead, it depends on how much coherence has to be provided to whom, in which working groups, and the type of problem they are trying to solve. This, in turn, determines how leaders must configure the social circuitry of their organization (Layer 3). This includes the design of roles, routines, processes, and procedures. For instance, the social circuitry to support normal air traffic control operations is different from the circuitry needed to ensure the safe landing by a student pilot in a damaged aircraft.

Coupling and coherence are important, not just for Gene and Steve trying to move a couch or Maggie Taraska landing safely. Look around your own work environment and assess whether you are wired to win or not. Have many people have been placed into the same group arbitrarily, when the problems they’re dealing with are not tightly coupled? If so, this is likely a couch team that is actually moving chairs. This social circuitry design error creates the predictable consequence of people being drawn into situations where they are not needed and for which they will not be affected by the outcomes. This creates more meetings, memos, status updates, and the like, which adds work and time but does not add value. 

Conversely, as you look around your work environment, are there people who are responsible for some portion of a larger problem scattered around the organization, not taking into account how coupled their work is? If so, this is likely because a couch problem is being solved by multiple chair teams. People who should be solving problems together can’t. Collaboration should be frequent, fast, and rich but becomes occasional, slow, and imprecise. Instead of conversation, there are forms, work orders, tickets, intermittent meetings, and convoluted reporting channels. 

Wired this way, people with tightly coupled work are not in a coherent working group. They don’t have everything they need to do their work easily and well, which includes people, skills, resources, decision rights, and so forth. This makes it more difficult to find solutions, and those solutions are worse than they otherwise would have been. This is also a social circuitry design error, one of breaking things into such small pieces that coherence is lost. That’s both coherence of completeness and coherence in terms of being able to act logically and reliably.

In the first case, the system was over-coupled and under-partitioned. In the second case, the system was under-coupled and over-partitioned. Later in the book, we’ll describe how leaders can address both of these situations to be wired to win.

This first vignette demonstrated the effects of cohesion and coupling to make it easier or more difficult to jointly solve a problem. In the second vignette, we’ll illustrate how management systems can make it easier or more difficult to integrate different functional specialties to achieve a common goal, what can go wrong, and what we can do about it.


Learn more about Wiring the Winning Organization here.

- About The Authors
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Gene Kim

Gene Kim is a Wall Street Journal bestselling author, researcher, and multiple award-winning CTO. He has been studying high-performing technology organizations since 1999 and was the founder and CTO of Tripwire for 13 years. He is the author of six books, The Unicorn Project (2019), and co-author of the Shingo Publication Award winning Accelerate (2018), The DevOps Handbook (2016), and The Phoenix Project (2013). Since 2014, he has been the founder and organizer of DevOps Enterprise Summit, studying the technology transformations of large, complex organizations.

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Dr. Steven J. Spear

Dr. Steven J. Spear (DBA MS MS) is principal for HVE LLC, the award-winning author of The High-Velocity Edge, and patent holder for the See to Solve Real Time Alert System. A Senior Lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School and a Senior Fellow at the Institute, Dr. Spear’s work focuses on accelerating learning dynamics within organizations so that they know better and faster what to do and how to do it. This has been informed and tested in practice in multiple industries including heavy industry, high tech design, biopharm R&D, healthcare delivery and other social services, US Army rapid equipping, and US Navy readiness.

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