This article was written by Daniel Schmitz, a Consultant at ON THE MARK, and a long-time friend and remote work colleague of Sacha Connor, our CEO. 

OTM’s experience and passion for collaborative business transformation that’s supported by pragmatism, systems thinking, and a belief in people are unparalleled. OTM has been in business for 35 years and is a leading organization design firm.

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It’s a symptom. What you’re experiencing is the groaning of your operating model.

It probably wasn’t optimized or designed for virtual work. What worked acceptably well in a co-located environment now doesn’t. I once heard that growth covers many sins in business management. To this we can now add, co-location covers many sins in organization design. What can you do?

In lieu of organization redesign, teams and their managers can consider three questions:

  1. Where is the D?
  2. How does the team solve problems and make decisions?
  3. Can I reduce work fragmentation?

You can investigate these three questions to reduce some of the meeting burden and release time for value-creating work or life balance. This can’t solve all your problems, but it’s a start when organization assessment and redesign is not a realistic option.

1. Where is the D?

Teams add extra meetings when those doing the work can’t make important decisions about their work. Decisions are made at one of two levels: The first have decisions made at the hierarchical level where the value-creating work is performed; the second has decisions made one level above where the value-creating work is performed. The latter is a familiar bottleneck. Virtual coordination makes navigating it more painful.

If you lead a team or are subject to 1-up managerial decision-making, identify the decisions that are better made at the level where the core work of the organization is performed. What value does the manager provide? How can you generate that value without an incremental meeting? What would it take to push decision-making to the individual or team delivering the work?

2. How does the team solve problems and make decisions?

Teams frequently meet to solve problems and make decisions. Most do not have a defined problem-solving method that is clear and repeatable. This leads to meeting inefficiency and more meetings. Find a model and use it until it becomes a stable element in your team process.

One basic model starts with a felt need and progresses through problem formulation, generating proposals, forecasting consequences, action planning, taking actions, and evaluating outcomes. Feedback loops help ensure continuous learning. Fortunately, many problem-solving methods look more alike than different.

Source: Schein, E. H. (1999). Process consultation revisited: Building the helping relationship. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

3. Can I reduce work fragmentation?

Work is more efficient when interdependent tasks and decisions are grouped together into teams responsible for complete deliverables. It is easier for members of such teams to better sense each other, quickly and efficiently collaborate, see the complete deliverable, and collectively receive feedback from the recipient.

This grouping of interdependent tasks and decisions creates “whole work”. It’s a well-established principle of organization design. It minimizes coordination and pass-off requirements that must otherwise cross additional organizational boundaries when the work is fragmented. You can see the issue in the familiar childhood game of telephone. The problems of fragmentation are exacerbated in virtual operating environments that create the additional boundaries of time and space.

Look at the organization of work in your zone of control. Map the steps needed to design, produce, and deliver a product or service. Identify associated work activities and decisions. Locate these activities and decisions in your organization. Assess the fragmentation. Might there be a better way to group people who take collective responsibility for the whole work?

Virtual Work is a Stressor that Brings Underlying Issues to Light

The meeting fatigue you experience in a virtual environment is likely driven by underlying problems that existed in the co-located environment. Virtual ways of working simply make the pain more intolerable.

Teams exist because they pool differentiated capabilities to produce outputs individuals can’t alone produce. Problems occur when team design separates decision making from the work, leaves recurring team processes to chance, and fragments work. Virtual work hasn’t changed these principles. It makes their violations more painful.

Ask any of the three questions offered in this blog of yourself and of your team. You might find some quick wins that both increase the quality of work-life and release time that may be applied elsewhere.


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