Organizational friction and how to avoid it
Published on 7/3/2021

Organizational friction and how to avoid it

Teamwork can be very fulfilling. Working on interesting subjects within interdisciplinary teams where each one brings in their unique knowledge and awes the others with their capabilities are some of the most joyous moments in my job. A lot of jobs also simply can not be done alone, or at least not as efficient as when we work together as a team.

Asynchronous work has its challenges

However, there are also situations in which working together is frustratingly inefficient. Let's assume two people - A and B - work together on a project. A does her part of the job and then hands-off her work to B. When B starts working, he starts to notice some adaptations that need to be made. Unfortunately, A is not available until two days later. B tries to do the job without the adaptations of A. When A is finally available, it takes her some time to refamiliarize herself with the topic, since she's been working on other projects in the meanwhile. In the meanwhile person C - a generalist at a different company - did the whole job in half the time with a better overall outcome.

There are so many things that can go wrong with asynchronous work:

  1. Valuable thoughts get lost during hand-overs. Every person in the chain usually redoes substantial parts of the thinking process.
  2. Fragmented work (as a result of asynchronous work) is a huge impediment for deep (uninterrupted) work.
  3. Specialists tend to neglect the big picture, which results in suboptimal results or conflicts.
  4. Asynchronous work usually requires a substantial amount of coordination.

I'm blown away, again and again, to see what a skilled generalist can achieve in little time simply by not having to go through the problems above.

Strategies to avoid the pitfalls of asynchronous work

The first big step of avoid problems of asynchronous work is simply being aware of it. Being aware of what can be done independently and what should rather be done synchronously helps a great deal. Tasks dependence is a great hint that a synchronous approach might be better suited.

The following strategies help to deal with (complex) problems that are difficult to separate into independent tasks:

Hire generalists

While seemingly less efficient than specialists, generalists - in absence of the problems above - almost always get done more in less time. The good thing is: generalists can always selectively bring in (internal or external) specialists when needed.

Organize in small mostly autonomous teams

The next closest thing to generalists is a small autonomous team. Team members need to be close enough to each other so they always have the big picture and can resolve impediments quickly. One technique that aims to facilitate this is daily stand-up meetings.

Actively manage the touchpoints and facilitate handover

Where the above is not possible it's surely valuable to actively manage the touchpoints and facilitate handovers.

Proper documentation helps tremendously to avoid the loss of information at touchpoints and also transmits aspects of the bigger picture. While it is time-consuming, it is usually highly recommendable.

To actively manage also means spending some time specifying how different entities work together. An agreement on things such as file format or methodology can greatly reduce the need for coordination later on.

While many impediments can be removed ahead of time, it's crucial to ensure quick response times when unexpected ones arise. Team members should make sure their calendars allow for certain flexibility to resolve issues quickly.

Conclusion:

While asynchronous work can quickly lead to inefficient situations, the strategic use of generalists and autonomous teams helps to avoid these problems. By actively managing touchpoints, common pitfalls can be avoided or mitigated.