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

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

Great Teams WorkshopOccasionally we have the experience of belonging to a great team. Thrilling as it is, the experience is rare. In part, it's rare because we usually strive only for adequacy, not for greatness. We do this because we don't fully appreciate the returns on greatness. Not only does it feel good to be part of great team — it pays off. Check out my Great Teams Workshop to lead your team onto the path toward greatness. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenogMhuqCxAnbfLvzbner@ChacigAthhhYwzZDgxshoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

A rocking chairPoverty of Choice by Choice
Sometimes our own desire not to have choices prevents us from finding creative solutions. Life can be simpler (if less rich) when we have no choices to make. Why do we accept the same tired solutions, and how can we tell when we're doing it?
The Samuel Morse Telegraph ReceiverRemote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: III
Facilitators of synchronous distributed meetings (meetings that occur in real time, via telephone or video) can make life much easier for everyone by taking steps before the meeting starts. Here's Part III of a little catalog of suggestions for remote facilitators.
Industrial robots assembling automobilesUnnecessary Boring Work: I
Work can be boring. Some of us must endure the occasional boring task, but for many, everything about work is boring. It doesn't have to be this way.
Capturing ideas in a brainstormNine Brainstorming Demotivators: II
Brainstorming sessions produce output of notoriously variable quality, but understanding what compromises quality can help elevate it. Here's Part II of a set of nine phenomena that can limit the quality of contributions to brainstorming sessions.
Tennis balls on a tennis court. Your fitness program can be a part of your job search.Be Choosier About Job Offers: II
An unfortunate outcome of job searches occurs when a job seeker feels forced to accept an offer that isn't a good fit. Sometimes financial pressures are so severe that the seeker has little choice. But financial pressures are partly perceptual. Here's how to manage feeling that pressure.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Virtual and Global Teams for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A blue peacock of IndiaComing October 4: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I
Conversational narcissism is a set of behaviors that participants use to focus the exchange on their own self-interest rather than the shared objective. This post emphasizes the role of these behaviors in advancing a narcissist's sense of self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 4.
Men in conversation at an eventAnd on October 11: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: II
Self-importance is one of four major themes of conversational narcissism. Knowing how to recognize the patterns of conversational narcissism is a fundamental skill needed for controlling it. Here are eight examples that emphasize self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 11.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenogMhuqCxAnbfLvzbner@ChacigAthhhYwzZDgxshoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.