Author, reviewer and revision dates:
Created by John C. Thomas on Dec. 11, 2004
Reviewed by <> on <>
Revised by JCT on Feb. 7, 2018.
Prologue and Acknowledgements.
This pattern can be found in many teams, companies, NGO’s, families, and religious organizations. If you are interested in how this happened to strike me as a pattern, feel free to read this section Otherwise, you can skip it. I began to notice this pattern after two events happened to coincide.
While working at IBM Research many years ago, I played in an inter-company tennis league in Westchester County, New York. During those matches, I met many IBMers from outside of IBM Research. One of the people I met worked in the corporate tax department. In those days, long before Google, we used a Key Word In Context system (ITERC?) to scan for potentially useful documents. Every week, I would get a long list of abstracts based on my list of keywords. This system was not nearly so accurate as what many of us have access to today. While there were many “hits” for me, there were also quite a few false positives. For example, I was interested in the psychological process of “induction” – learning a rule based on examples. I often got abstracts, however, about “induction motors.” One day, I got one of those “false positives” about a new tax law that allowed highly profitable companies like IBM to “trade” tax liabilities with companies who were struggling like the tire companies in my home town of Akron. According to the abstract, it was in the financial interests of both companies to use this “trading” mechanism. I had little interest in it, but I liked the guy I had met from corporate and we had traded contact information for tennis purposes. I sent him the abstract. As it turned out, this was precisely applicable to IBM and saved them a lot of money.
At the same time, I was reading about the history of IBM and particularly thought it interesting that they had put so much time and effort into the 100% club meetings. This was a country-wide meeting to bring together sales people from all over the US who had met or exceeded their sales quotas. I was never in sales, but even at Research, we had “annual picnics” in which everyone in IBM Research was invited to come with their families. As I began thinking about it, I realized that these kinds of “larger gatherings” were common across many different cultures, domains, and types of groups. The tax example showed a very specific financial benefit to the IBM company but I realized there were many other potential benefits as well.
Conference. Congress. Convention. Jamboree. National Holidays.
When moderate to large groups work to solve large, complex problems, it is often necessary for them to subdivide the work into distinct subgroups. This results in the group being more efficient and effective. However, it also means that each group comes to develop their own vocabulary, search for people who are particularly good at certain things, and in various other ways, the people within the subgroup communicate a lot, come to trust each other, and have clear common interests. They are often at conflict with other subgroups for resources. In addition, there is less trust across these organizational boundaries than within such a boundary. Often, the people themselves come to be somewhat different kinds of people. Large effective groups therefore participate at least annually in a “Greater Gathering” which allows people to meet and co-mingle across these organizational boundaries. These meetings are constructed to emphasize “common ground” within the larger group. As a result, new lines of communication are lined up; mutual trust is enhanced; sometimes, real problems are solved.
As large, complex problems are broken down into pieces and assigned to different groups, efficiency and effectiveness increase. Not only that, the individuals within each of these various subgroups typically grow more trusting of each other within that sub-group. They learn about each other’s skills and motivations, so over time, the sub-group as a whole grows more effective and efficient.
However, this high intra-group cohesion comes at a price. People in one part of an organization consider themselves the “in-group” and may begin to limit their learning because of a lack of diversity in that one perspective. Furthermore, they may come to work so hard to solve their own sub-problem that they lose sight of the larger problem and make sub-optimizing decisions. In some cases, the ideas of various subgroups about how to handle something will differ and result in conflict. Even worse, sometimes, decisions made in Group A help them a little but make life for Group B much more difficult and make the overall objective of the group, whatever it is, more difficult to achieve and no-one ever realizes it. There may be lack of trust between different sub-groups or even outright mistrust among sub-groups. Often sub-groups that are “at odds” with each other, not only have different management chains and objectives; they may also be geographically apart; they may be from different cultures; they may be of different professions, etc. For these reasons, a suspicion may grow over time while mutual trust diminishes. Information sharing becomes strained. The overall organization is not doing as well as it might nor are the people within that organization doing as well as they might.
A group of people has been attempting to accomplish some task as effectively and efficiently as possible. In order to do this, one common method is to breakdown a large, complex task into smaller, less complex tasks. Often, those people working on a subtask naturally spend more time with others on that subtask than on other subtasks. It naturally occurs in this context that since people spend a lot of time together, they may develop common interests and also spend leisure time together as well. Sharing common sub-goals, physical contexts, and leisure activities as well as working on the same subtasks may eventually lead to an “in-group” feeling.
Over time, these subgroups develop different methods, procedures, values, customs, terms of art. They become, in a sense, different sub-cultures. But just as cooperation and communication can be trickier when two historical cultures are involved, so too, it can more difficult for, say, someone from each of the legal department, the accounting department and the R&D department to understand each other than, say, three accountants. Sometimes, various departments actually want the same thing. They simply don’t know it because they are speaking different languages.
Some degree of “antagonism” of purpose is often built in to the organization. The R&D department will ask for more money. Finance will say no. But these kinds of one-sided or even two-sided or multi-sided competitions are much healthier both for the organization and its people if they are done with respect and rules. Having completely different sub-cultures can enhance the difficulty of such negotiations.
*People are naturally gregarious.
*People working on a common problem often bond as well.
*People working on a common sub-problem often lose sight of the larger problem.
*Social sanctions can lead to a lack of diversity of perspectives.
*All people share certain basic drives.
*Shared special events help build social bonds.
*People enjoy novel experiences and viewpoints, under some circumstances
*An expectation of what happens (based on story and experience) can help mold what does happen.
- The possibility of one person harming another and not doing so increases mutual trust.
- Shared experiences tend to increase mutual trust.
All the sub-groups that need to cooperate in a larger group should get together periodically for a meeting of “Greater Gathering.” This should be periodic and structured. Activities need to be formulated that help everyone visualize and experience common ground. Eating, drinking, dancing, singing, athletic contests, and other physical activities should also be included since these are experiences people will relate to and enjoy regardless of which sub-group they belong to or which sub-problem they are working on.
Companies generally used to have many of these events when such companies were run by people who cared about the companies and the people within those companies rather than simply caring about using companies as a tool to enhance the power and wealth of a few. For example, when I first joined IBM, they sponsored many sports leagues within IBM Research including tennis, golf, softball, and soccer. Furthermore, they participated, as in the prologue of this pattern, in sports leagues across nearby IBM locations which included sales, CHQ, Engineering, Programming and Technology, Marketing, and Advanced Ad Tech. Every year, there was an elaborate company picnic. There was a Holliday Party and fairly frequent less formal award ceremonies with refreshments. There were also numerous recognition events which were attended by people outside your sub-group.
Other examples are numerous. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have national Jamborees. Families have extended family reunions. Sometimes, these can be at a civic level such as Mardi Gras or a local annual parade that most people work on or attend.
I’ve been very active for a long time in a group called “CHI” for “Computer-Human Interaction.” It’s a Special Interest Group of the Association for Computing Machinery. (ACM). Anyway, the people who do research in this field are scattered across the globe. They work for different university departments or companies or non-profits or governments or as individual consultants. We have full professors and undergraduate students; we have people with original backgrounds in electrical engineering, philosophy, psychology, design, architecture, fine arts, English, human-computer interaction, mathematics, mechanical engineering and many more. Some are doing research whose application is out at least 20 years and others are worried about whether their start-up will survive the quarter. Some work for giant multi-nationals and others are one person companies. Every year, we have a rather challenging conference where all of these folks are invited. The conference centers around the technical program, but there are also many things meant to provide a larger gathering; to foster mutual trust; to have a great time together so that we can better respect each other, communicate more effectively and achieve common goals.
The result of the first example above is that people throughout IBM at that time almost universally thought of themselves as IBMers rather than someone from the accounting department. What this meant was that there was a high level of trust for people from other parts of the company. I’m not saying it was perfect but it was much higher with more people honestly trying to do what was best for the company rather than what was best for them or their immediate manager. Now, that’s largely reversed. Of course, it’s hard to know how much is due to the “cutting out of all the fat” like annual picnics and sport’s leagues.
In the second example, Boy Scouts get a chance to see that people of different shades of skin, creeds, geographical locations share a lot in common.
In the third example, the CHI conference continues, I believe, to be an important reason that people in such a wide variety of circumstances can collaborate and communicate so well.
It is easy to imagine that people we rarely or never see are not only different from us superficially, but that they are different in essence. If you meet people from various parts of your organization in a neutral informal situation that stresses your commonality such as a picnic, a sporting even, an ice-cream social, or a walk-a-thon, you will see that you have some common ground, trust, and makes communication easier.
Conversational Support at the Boundaries.
Many species go to a common place at least annually. We humans attribute this to the benefits of cross-fertilization or more global competitions in survival of the fittest. Is it also possible that they are also exchanging information that is useful for the species as a whole?
I think I will defer, at least temporarily, to that excellent fable of Norton Juster’s: The Phantom Tollbooth. In that fable, Rhyme and Reason are banished to separate kingdoms and the results are not good.