Hidden Force Beneath Collaboration

Their own simplified version of reality

Organizations are complex systems. There is so much data flying around, that workers need to filter which data they let in and which they ignore. In fact, because organizations are so complicated and multi-faceted, people and teams can and will create their own simplified version of reality, that they share with their close co-workers.

We call these versions of reality working models. This means that an organization, especially a large one, can be seen as a system of alternate working models (Trumpism intended). The issue is that very few people are aware that they have adopted a working model. As we will see, working models can have a powerful impact on productivity. Hence, we can speak of a hidden forc

There is a good side to this. If teams did not create their own model of their environment, they would never be able to concentrate on their core task. By simplifying reality into a working model, they are able to filter data, focus and get some work done, instead of having philosophical discussions all day long.

New people coming into teams are not yet familiar with the working model, which means they usually experience an information overload, but also notice things that existing team members don’t. This is why it’s so interesting to ask them how they see the team. You’re bound to hear some interesting stuff.

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The problem arises from the following three factors:

01. Working models get outdated

People do not perceive their working model as something separate from reality. Therefore, there is no real reason to challenge or validate the working model from time to time. Also, the model helps people to disregard information that does not fit in the model, so that as time passes the working model can evolve from a useful tool to an unnoticed ballast for a team, especially if the environment is changing.

This is especially painful as working models can contain strong and negative judgements about people outside the team and other teams as a whole. Images like this have the nasty quality of being self-fulfilling and so strengthen themselves over time. These untested images can destroy working relationships and end careers.

02. Working models contain comfortable “truths”

As working models are shared by people working closely together, they can be fed not only by facts, but also by judgements, the desire to allocate blame to others and justification for any blame that could be laid on the team or its members by others. In this way, the working model becomes less rational and a shield against attacks from outside.

The problem is that this shield does not only keep attacks out, but constructive feedback for or challenges to the team as well. In the worst case, dysfunctional working models feed distrust of outsiders and keep a team virtually closed for input from outside the team. Because the working model feels safe, outsiders are not always welcome to question it.

03. Working models can clash with other working models

As unchallenged working models become stronger over time, it is not hard to imagine what will happen if one working model is confronted with another. This typically happens in value chains, where teams work together to align their operation and improve quality together. Here is where working models collide.

In theory, this could lead to shared insights, valuable feedback, win-win solutions and performance improvement. Instead, all too often it leads to conflict and a strengthening of mutual negative images, which feed the negative part of the mutual working models and make it even harder to work together in future.

Is it a problem?

In my experience, every organization and team has a working model. In many cases this is ok, but unchecked working models tend to go sour, leading to productivity and quality loss, as well as a loss of flow and fun in the organization.

Regular feedback and input from outside help to keep working models in the healthy zone. If dysfunctional working models are in operation, it may be difficult to address this without outside help. Safe, but challenging interventions, such as a dialogue session or an organizational simulation can help to set things right.

To quote a participant of one of these sessions: “Bloody Hell, if this is really how we do things, we’d better do something about it!”

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