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The Space Between

“…complexity is about how things connect far more than what the things are.”  – Dave Snowden

I crashed my brain in August. In the same way that my computer gets slower and slower as I accumulate more and more open tabs, I was finally left with a spinning wheel of mental overload.

The lead up to this was several months of juggling a demanding cognitive load, navigating a ton of ambiguity, and spending almost all of my free time reading about sexual harassment, which in hindsight was not an optimal self-care tactic. Then, at the beginning of August, I flew to the Bay area to attend a workshop led by speaker, facilitator, and Actionable Consultant Partner Jennifer Kenny. It was on Women’s Leadership, which sounded like it might be familiar fare I’d been served before. But Jennifer literally blew my mind.

Months later, with my brain back in reasonable shape, I’m still rethinking basically everything through the lens and language she shared that day.

One of the insights that has plagued me like a Carly Rae Jepsen song ever since was what Jennifer called interconnectedness, and explained as designing the space between.

Essentially, there is tremendous, often overlooked, potential in being attentive to the space between things, not just the things themselves. Our corporate language and culture rarely acknowledge or value this focus, in part because it’s less visible and measurable, relying on perception rather than action.

Designing for the space in between means:

  • Being attuned to the connections that exist between people that might support or prevent a particular outcome. Seeing things that others might overlook that will smooth the way for collaboration and understanding. Anticipating the collateral impact of the things we’re designing (like programs, processes) I think this is linked to perspective-taking, but goes beyond that.
  • Recognizing the impact of context on the quality of interactions and the outcomes they enable. Respecting and wielding power as a convener of others was something that came up in our discussion in August. Our organizations often lack the language to articulate the value inherent in this activity. It’s often dismissed as “event planning” which focuses on linear, visible tactics, and ignores the invisible awareness and strategic sensing required to doing this well. The experience and value of a gathering that has been thoughtfully and carefully convened, versus one that has not, are in stark contrast. Yet this expertise is inadequately named.
  • Designing experiences in a holistic way that includes attending to portions of the journey between events/deliverables/activities. Not overlooking the white space as an area of opportunity and innovative potential.

Naturally this led me to think about HR, and our tendency to focus on programs, policies, process, and technology. My experience has been that we’re more inclined to invest resources and attention in designing these things than we are to attend to designing the space in between these things.

When that happens, this is what it looks like:

  • We obsess over the engagement score rather than explore what the day-to-day experiences of our individual employees can tell us
  • We spend ages getting our Respectful Workplace policy right, but skimp on  coaching managers on the everyday practices that actually create a respectful, psychologically safe environment
  • Our organizations strenuously exert themselves hiring the most sought after ‘top talent’ in the market, and then invest little or nothing in deliberately fostering effective collaboration between them
  • We’re all about the latest recruitment technology to support our ‘candidate experience’ but are so busy that we use that fancy system to send bulk disposition e-mails to the candidates we meet with (and sometimes we don’t even do that)
  • We build an onboarding program and then have zero touch points with employees unless they raise (or become) a problem
  • When team conflict arises, we call it ‘interpersonal’ and point to the individual actors’ personalities. This often leads to us overlooking the connections between them as sources of conflict (information flow, shared role clarity, understanding of team goals, and trust in leadership)

These examples feel a bit clumsy and obvious, but I’m sharing them because I think they’re common. The idea of interconnectedness I took away from Jennifer’s seminar was more nuanced than what I’m conveying here, and I’m still feeling my way into how it applies to my everyday work. But it does, and I keep coming across examples of its relevance.

In this great overview of her new book, Amy Edmondson writes:

“That’s why it’s not enough for organizations to simply hire talent. If leaders want to unleash individual and collective talent, they must foster a psychologically safe climate where employees feel free to contribute ideas, share information, and report mistakes.”

Hiring the right talent (as challenging as it can be) is far simpler than fostering a psychologically safe climate. Action-oriented, linear strategies like “hire a bunch of smart people and let them figure it out” are appealing because the externalize the messy “figuring it out” part to people other than the person(s) setting that strategy. That activity is made invisible to them.

As I see it, the opportunity here is to notice and engage in the complexity that the space in between represents, both as a concrete practice and as a mindset. This means interrogating whether the metrics we’re using to measure our ‘success’ actually correspond to day-to-day reality in our orgs. It means being curious about the individual experience someone’s having rather than how well our programs emulate ‘best practices’. And it means reining in our desire to prove our value as a function through visible activity and solutioneering, rather than deeply understanding the current landscape of our organizations and its challenges.

For more about Jennifer check out her website.

Friendly reminder: I don’t accept paid endorsements, sponsorships, or ads on this site. If I’m writing about something or someone it’s because I personally think everyone should know about them.   

Recommended Reading:

Disruption – Saadia Muzaffar, Walrus Talks

This excellent Walrus talk from Muzaffar, a tech entrepreneur and cofounder of Tech Reset of Canada reminds us that disruption is deeply and unavoidably political:

“You see, a strange thing happens when things become ubiquitous. When something is all around us, we tend to deem it benign. We start to think that it’s normal, and we just absorb it into our lexicon and stop questioning it. The ubiquity of online labor platforms and their addictive convenience has done the same thing. It’s romanticized this lure of disruption so much that it has managed to make an entire global workforce of workers disappear before our very eyes. They’re like Santa’s elves, right? They do all the work and you and I benefit from it, but we never hear about them. We have tech conferences that rival the budget of the Academy Awards, but we never hear about these workers. Online labor platforms have done a few things. They have reconfigured what it means to be a worker, and how work is perceived and experienced. And in this reconfiguration, they have designed an unacceptable level of inequity.”

“…when an algorithm guides your every step, there is no learning, there is no mastery, there is no getting better at the thing that you do, because it is literally telling you “Turn left, go to shelf AB, pick up this thing.” And what this does is called deskilling. It actually has an effect on people that makes it more difficult for them to function outside of their jobs and compute things. It’s like mental atrophy. If you think about what these workers experience, it’s a dangerous level of mental and physical stress in environments that are harsh and unforgiving.”

If Your Employees Aren’t Speaking Up, Blame Company Culture – Hemant Kakkar and Subra Tangirala, HBR

Okay, I’m generally opposed to ‘blaming company culture’ for anything since that’s usually a means to deflect accountability for individual behaviour. However, if you get past the title this article is a worthwhile read. It outlines research that suggests situational factors in our organizations (rather than personality attributes of individual employees) are more important drivers of how likely an employee is to speak up about concerns (whether these are related to misconduct, or opportunities to innovate). I’ve been writing and speaking about sexual harassment and Speak Up culture this year, so this is helpful.

“…if you want employees to speak up, the work environment and the team’s social norms matter. Even people who are most inclined to raise ideas and suggestions may not do so if they fear being put down or penalized. On the flip side, encouraging and rewarding speaking up can help more people do so, even if their personality makes them more risk-averse.”

Recommended Event:

SAAS – E[Quality] Pop-up Unconference – December 3, 2018, Toronto Canada

I’m so looking forward to this unique event next month. I’ll be helping attendees surface their biggest take-aways and calls to action near the end of the day, but mostly I can’t wait to hear from the array of great speakers, and participate in the interactive solveathon focused on making SAAS more equitable. If you, or someone you know, is a leader in SAAS please consider attending.

Photo by 鷐 白 on Unsplash



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