Monday, March 21, 2011

Forget the RACI chart

Steven Pinker adapts Anthropologist Alan Fiske’s work to identify 3 major relationship types across the world’s cultures.

The relationship types are:

• Dominance (boss, mafia, fear)

• Communality (Uchi/Sotto, Dunbar number)

• Reciprocity (‘On’, scratch my back)

All three have an evolutionary basis and are used to manage and distribute resources. One type is preferred and applies most naturally to certain people but can be applied/ extended to others through negotiation facilitated by language (communication).

Dominance – ‘I’m the Decider’ is inherited from our primate ancestors and many personality assessments have tried unsuccessfully to measure it. (DISC, MBTi…).

Communality – ‘Share and share alike’ - is extended to family, spouses and friends and evolved by kin selection and mutualism. It may also be heavily influenced by our brain capacity as measured by the Dunbar number. It is also reflected in the Japanese concept of Uchi/Sotto to identify those within and those outside.

Reciprocity – ‘Give and take, scratch my back’ approach that has enabled so much trade to flourish into the larger population. It forms the basis for reciprocal altruism (i.e altruism outside of a genetic component, Hamiltons law of kin selection).

In an Operations environment these relationship types are clearly and sometimes explicitly understood. Dominance is reflected in the Functional Organization chart, Communality in the team ‘norms’ (rarely documented but clearly enforced in UK) and Reciprocity in the agreements with other departments and contracts with vendors. An employee often only has to deal with one relationship type at a time and often has been chosen, trained and rewarded for being successful in that type.

However on a project we can easily encounter all three types of relationships and the relationship type can change as the project progresses. Many times the individuals are not aware of the different characteristics of the types leading to awkwardness, embarrassment or potentially worse scenarios. It is important to know that behaviour that is acceptable in one relationship type can be unappreciated or anomalous in another.

Steven Pinker uses this idea to give a great explanation of a scene from the movie ‘When Harry Met Sally’ - Pinker is a heavyweight thinker on language – and make a playful connection to a dating faux-pas in the movie.

On a project many situations can arise where there is ambiguity on the relationship type leading to an unpleasant (in UK) emotion related to awkwardness and embarrassment. A skilful PM can recognise and anticipate or at least react quickly to these situations by clarifying the relationship type that exists (e.g. Dominance) and lead or facilitate any change in relationship type (say to Community or Reciprocity) as smoothly as possible. This skill is mostly undervalued and poorly understood. Therefore it is not identified, selected, valued and improved – you either have it or you don’t might be the norm.

A big complication for some in this area comes with the use of indirect language and actions even when there is no uncertainty present. This may be extremely difficult for someone not skilled in this area. Deniability is a factor and gets into the ideas of individual and mutual knowledge. Individual knowledge is where you know something and I also know the same thing. Mutual knowledge adds the certainty that you know that I know and visa versa. The state of knowledge has changed and actions may need to occur that could have been avoided (plausibly denied even to the individual).

Overt language has consequences (you can’t say that!) that can be avoided with indirect language or innuendo. A skilful communicator can help to smooth the waves on projects – remember they are ‘temporary’ endeavours.

For a PM is a global project with resources from multiple functional departments this can be THE key characteristic to determine success and failure of the project. The ability to understand and manage any frictions in the relationships that exist within a project is a full time job. The growth of communications channels with the size of the team leads to a non linear explosion in the probability of a troubled relationship.


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