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Paying attention to the space between

I was lucky enough to get to the AFL Grand Final in Perth on the weekend with my family. Perth has made something of an icon of the Melbourne premiership captain, Max Gawn. Though he had a solid game in the Grand Final, Melbourne won because of the way they worked as a team. As good as Max is, he can’t be everywhere on the field.

It has become a coaching cliche to hear that the team does well when every player fulfils their part. Melbourne embodied that on the weekend, with stretches of play that were almost poetic. The ball moved from player to player, each running into space, setting up the opportunity on goal.

The importance of that space between is often missed when we overstate the focus on single players. Interestingly, the player adjudged best on ground in the Grand Final had an impressive 15 scoring involvements – that is, he was involved in 15 passages of play that resulted in a score for his team. The best teams, the best coaching panels, and the best players pay attention to and cultivate connections, building trust and collective competence. Players who are involved in the most effective connections become the most valuable – they contribute to an adaptive connected team.

The same is true of the healthiest organisations.

Leaders are incredibly well served by data points about the quality of their employees, their customers, and their suppliers. Employee engagement scores tell us something about the enthusiasm our staff bring to the performance of their role. We have countless financial metrics that cut and dice who is contributing what and when, and where attention needs to be focussed. These metrics go to the quality of the agents in our systems, and how those agents can be enhanced for greater productivity and profitability. They tend to focus on individual players.  

Our observation is that boards and executive leaders have far fewer reliable data points that describe the quality of the connections between their people, and with their stakeholders. The data that would most powerfully equip leaders to invest in strengthening the relationships between the agents in the system is rarely highlighted. Test it this way – what metrics in your organisation are equivalent to scoring involvements? 

The absence of data on connections would be less of a problem if organisations were closed systems, immune from the impact of circumstances beyond the walls of the head office, and if they dealt with purely technical problems capable of being solved by experts. In a closed system facing only technical problems, the quality of the agents in the system is of prime importance.

Most growing organisations are open systems, facing increased complexity. Life, like team sport, has competitors and other variables that swiftly put an assembly line mentality to the sword. As we have learned from Dr Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, many of our challenges are not merely technical, but adaptive. 

Adaptive problems require adaptive leadership. 

“Technical problems, while often challenging, can be solved applying existing know-how and the organization’s current problem-solving processes. Adaptive problems resist these kinds of solutions because they require individuals throughout the organization to alter their ways; as the people themselves are the problem, the solution lies with them.” 

Because we live and work in an increasingly complex, fast-paced, changing world with an onslaught of adaptive problems, we benefit from learning the lessons of complex adaptive systems (and here we are assisted by the commentary of Jun Park):

“The word “complex” implies diversity, through a great number, and wide variety of interdependent, yet autonomous parts. “Adaptive” refers to the system’s ability to alter, change, and learn from past experiences. The “system” portion refers to a set of connected, interdependent parts; a network.”

Nobody wins when leaders seek to operate open systems as if they are closed, or when they seek to solve adaptive problems as if they are technical. The “solutions” tend to be very short-lived and inadequate, resulting in leaders either blaming their teams (never a good look) or carrying the secret shame of feeling inadequate as a leader. The top-down, command and control model that characterises direction of closed systems, has rapidly become irrelevant in modern organisations.

This brings us back to the importance of connections. Two of the characteristics of effective adaptive systems, are that they:

  • exhibit distributed, rather than centralised, control (each player is an influential decision-maker within the network) and
  • generate emergent outcomes and behaviours, learning and creating through experimentation.

This doesn’t just happen by hiring and developing the most effective people, or getting better agents in the system. As Park explains:

“the quality and strength of relationships between individual agents will often predict the success of a CAS, more than an analysis of the traits of the individual agents can (Zimmerman, Lindberg and Plsek, 2001).”

Or as Tim Sullivan suggests:

“When information is diverse and aggregation and incentives are healthy, you get very good answers to problems. That’s what nature is doing, and that’s what we have to learn to do more effectively.”

When Melbourne was 19 points behind the Bulldogs during the third quarter of the Grand Final, they adapted as a system and piled on 100 points to 7 for the remainder of the game. That was not something that the coach was able to direct from above and at a distance – it required the players to respond as a collective, through the adaptive power of their connection.

At Neometric, we help organisations pay attention to connections.  Our relational analytics and other diagnostic tools and frameworks help refocus attention on the drivers of team performance. This provides a fresh set of options in the face of patterns of conflict, departmental silos and crisis or underperformance, and leader burnout. 

The best answers are often revealed in the spaces between.