Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 1;   January 1, 2020: Disjoint Awareness: Assessment

Disjoint Awareness: Assessment

by

When collaborators misunderstand each other's work and intentions, they're at risk of inadvertently interfering with each other. Three causes of misunderstandings are complexity, specialization, and rapid change.
Agricultural silos

Agricultural silos. These structures are used for storing grain. As a metaphor for organizational structures, silos are regarded as being relatively independent of each other. But the silos in this image clearly are not. For example, they share a loading mechanism, parts of which are clearly visible at the top of the line of silos. Not visible are the structures that keep the silos aligned with each other, so as to prevent their shifting from distorting the members of the loading mechanism.

So it is with organizational silos. Although we regard them as independent, and although they often seem to be working at cross-purposes with one another, they are linked, often in ways that are outside the awareness of the people who operate them.

As we discussed last time in more detail, disjoint awareness is a state in which the people of an organization collaborate using inaccurate mental models of each other's work and intentions. That is, there is a mismatch between their awareness of what each other is doing (or intending) and what those people are actually doing (or intending). Disjoint awareness is problematic because it causes collaborators to interfere with each other. For example, two different projects might contend with each other for the same scarce resource. Or two projects might waste precious resources trying to achieve the same goal.

When a significant number of people in an organization make similar errors in constructing disjoint awarenesses of what their collaborators are doing, one must consider three possibilities. First is a set of factors related to how well people can assess and project the activities of their collaborators. Second, the system in which these people find themselves might play a significant role. Finally, there is the possibility that psychological phenomena can contribute to the errors. In this part of our exploration of disjoint awareness, we explore factors that affect how well people can assess and project collaborators' activities. Three examples of such factors are complexity, specialization, and rapid change.

Complexity
When a collaboration is addressing problems that are unusually complex, some collaborators might find difficulty in grasping what's needed to create useful mental models of what others are doing. So even if they have access to the information they would need to create useful mental models, the task can be challenging and time consuming.
One common way of coping with complexity is an organizational structure known as siloing. In siloing, we decompose the responsibilities of the organization into semi-independent parts. This enables the people in each part to focus on their own mission, which is well defined by the siloing. Decomposing the organization in this way corresponds to the analysis phase of solving problems by means of analysis and synthesis. Unfortunately, the silos aren't always as independent as we assume they are, which is what leads to disjoint awareness on the part of the people in the silos.
Worse, most people When a collaboration is addressing
unusually complex problems, some
collaborators might find difficulty
in grasping what others are doing
regard as low priority any activity involved in understanding what others are doing. At even lower priority is the task of communicating to others what those others would need to know if they wanted to avoid interference. Each person regards his or her "own work" as more important. The result is that the collaborators don't know enough about each other to avoid interfering with each other. These priority issues can resolve themselves if the schedule has sufficient slack.
Specialization
As often happens in this age of specialization, the collaborators might not have a technological or educational background adequate for understanding each other's efforts. These barriers can add to the difficulty of understanding the work of their collaborators, which can create problems for understanding how their own work might interfere with the work of others.
The consequences of specialization can also afflict the collaborators as they try to explain their own work to their colleagues. What might seem like communication problems can actually be the result of knowledge or educational gaps. Understanding that the collaboration is a group of specialists can help its members communicate in terms simple enough and general enough to be understood by all.
Rapid change and chaos
If complexity and technical specialization aren't enough to prevent collaborators from understanding each other, a rapid pace of change bordering on chaos can be. By the time one collaborator understands another's plans, the situation might have changed so dramatically that the recently acquired understanding is no longer valid, and interference between the two efforts is inevitable. Ironically, the inter-collaborator interference can itself be a driver of chaos or rapid change.
Chaos within the collaboration — or in the context in which it occurs — can therefore be a self-sustaining phenomenon. Repair and maintenance of the disjoint awareness is an essential step in recovering smooth operation of the collaboration.

Next time we'll examine system-related factors that contribute to creating and maintaining disjoint awareness within collaborations. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Disjoint Awareness: Analysis  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? rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

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.

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:

Detour SignHow We Avoid Making Decisions
When an important item remains on our To-Do list for a long time, it's possible that we've found ways to avoid facing it. Some of the ways we do this are so clever that we may be unaware of them. Here's a collection of techniques we use to avoid engaging difficult problems.
The three large pyramids at Giza, from left to right: Menkaure, Khafre, Khufu.Email Antics: II
Nearly everyone complains that email is a time waster. Yet much of the problem results from our own actions. Here's Part II of a little catalog of things we do that help waste our time.
A phoenixFilms Not About Project Teams: II
Here's Part II of a list of films and videos about project teams that weren't necessarily meant to be about project teams. Most are available to borrow from the public library, and all are great fun.
Example of an unsecured driver-side floor mat trapping the accelerator pedal in a 2007 Toyota Lexus ES350Indicators of Lock-In: II
When a group of decision makers "locks in" on a choice, they can persist in that course even when others have concluded that the choice is folly. Here's Part II of a set of indicators of lock-in.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and President Bush in a press conference on September 17, 2001Overconfidence at Work
Confidence in our judgments and ourselves is essential to success. Confidence misplaced — overconfidence — leads to trouble and failure. Understanding the causes and consequences of overconfidence can be most useful.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A form of off road driving also known as mud boggingComing November 30: Avoiding Speed Bumps: II
Many of the difficulties we encounter when working together don't create long-term harm, but they do cause delays, confusion, and frustration. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics for avoiding speed bumps. Available here and by RSS on November 30.
Tuckman's stages of group developmentAnd on December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.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.