Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 19, Issue 52;   December 25, 2019:

Disjoint Awareness


In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk.
Three gears in a configuration that's inherently locked up

Three gears in a configuration that's inherently locked up. Any combination of an odd number of planar gears configured in a loop is inherently locked. Even though, at a local scale, the configuration looks like it might do something useful, when we examine it as a whole, we can see that it cannot do anything at all. So it is with collaborations in which participants harbor disjoint awareness of each other's activity and intentions. Image by J_Alves.

Many modern organizations achieve their objectives by organizing themselves into teams or other collaborative structures. And because their people are working as collaborators, they need some awareness of what their teammates are doing or what people in other collaborations are doing. But in forming or maintaining shared awareness of each other's work, people often encounter a problem I call disjoint awareness.

Disjoint awareness is a mismatch between what people believe their collaborators are doing or intending and what their collaborators are actually doing or intending. It can also denote a mismatch at the level of an entire team — a mismatch between what Team A believes Team B is doing and what Team B is actually doing. So disjoint awareness is due to a mismatch between the collaborators' awareness of each other's work and the awareness they would actually need if they were to avoid interfering with each other.

The mismatch can appear as a result of numerous phenomena, including ignorance, misconceptions, willful blindness, or unintended consequences of security measures. We'll examine some drivers of disjoint awareness in coming issues. To understand what we can do to reduce the incidence of disjoint awareness, let's begin by exploring its nature and effects.

A fictitious scenario

Here's an example of a scenario in which disjoint awareness reduces the chances of an organization achieving its objectives.

Consider an IT organization that divides its work into projects — many, many projects. Some projects depend on the results of others, in a complicated web of dependencies, which works well. But the company has run into a rough patch, financially speaking. To deal with the financial difficulty, the company forms a Budget Adjustment Team (BAT) to devise measures for reducing expenses. To simplify decision making, the BAT decides to reduce all IT project budgets uniformly by 5%.

But there's one project — call it Marigold — on which a number of other projects and much of the organization's operations depend. Because the BAT knows this, they exempt Marigold from the 5% uniform budget reduction, and instead impose only a 1.5% reduction on Marigold. They do this because Marigold's project manager has found a way to accommodate a 1.5% budget reduction with no effect on Marigold's schedule.

The BAT's decision is simple; it requires no special insight about how each project is affected. Although the people of the BAT have some awareness of what the IT project teams are doing, they lack the information they would have needed to devise a sequence of timed, custom-tailored cuts that took each project's situation into account. The BAT recognizes that its awareness of individual project situations is disjoint — it is inadequate for such a delicate task. That's why they mandated an almost-uniform 5% cut.

And that's the gateway through which trouble enters the story. The BAT didn't know that Marigold depends on deliverables from Daffodil, a project that was not exempted from the uniform budget reduction. Daffodil's schedule is disrupted by the budget reduction, and that causes a delay in Marigold's delivery. Delay in Marigold then kicks off a chain of disruption, waste, and lost revenue that far outweighs the small amount of budget saved by the 5% reduction in Daffodil's budget. If Daffodil hadn't been subjected to the uniform 5% cuts, these disruptions and revenue losses would have been less severe. Disjoint awareness thus plays a role in the company's failure to reach its original objectives.

But the problem of disjoint awareness isn't restricted to the BAT or to administrative or executive teams. In this fictitious scenario, many of the people who sponsor or manage the numerous projects in IT did have risk plans to cover budget cutbacks, but those plans weren't always coordinated with each other. That is, very few projects had plans for coordinating with other projects to revise schedules or devise alternative approaches to mitigate the effects of the cuts collectively. Such plans would have required more complete awareness of the changing needs and changing status of other projects — awareness most of the project managers lacked at the time the cuts were announced.

As a means of Disjoint awareness denotes a
deficiency in people's awareness of
what their collaborators are doing
ensuring that the team and the organization achieve their objectives, some collaborators focus almost exclusively on achieving their own objectives. But as members of a team, it isn't enough to "do our part." We must go about doing our parts in ways that allow, enable, or support others as they do their parts. Just as important: as we do our part, we must avoid interfering with others as they do theirs.

The zeroth step required for avoiding interference with the work of our collaborators is awareness of how our own actions might interfere with teammates' work. It's difficult to avoid interfering with others unless we're somewhat aware of what they're doing or planning to do, and how our own activities might interfere with theirs. That's why a narrow focus on "doing my part" creates a risk of disjoint awareness, and consequent interference with the work of others.

And the problem transcends the individual. In complex organizations that have dozens or hundreds of teams, each team pursues its own objectives. And like the individual members of a single team, each team must have some continually refreshed awareness of the work of other teams. Absent that awareness, one team might interfere with others as all pursue their own objectives. That's what happened with Daffodil, Marigold, and the BAT.

Last words

So for any given objective and for any set of teams, there's an optimal set of awarenesses that corresponds to an acceptably low level of interference between teams. If the respective awarenesses of all involved don't match that optimal set, we have a state of disjoint awareness, and collaborators or even whole teams are prone to interfere with each other.

Next time we'll examine some of the phenomena that tend to produce disjoint awareness.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Disjoint Awareness: Assessment  Next Issue

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