Relational Work - A Manifesto

Following is a first attempt at a curious manifesto. I create this manifesto to reframe our interpretation of work.

We live in a time immersed in a culture focused upon processes. I believe this is a fundamental misinterpretation, one which causes many of its own shortcomings.

I warmly appreciate Gregory Howell and his colleagues for pointing out an obvious truth: the metaphor we unselfconsciously use to guide our work is faulty. We see work as a series of disembodied input-process-output processes, though much of the work we engage in these days cannot be effectively characterized in this way. How we think about work influences everything.

How would it be if we characterized work as primarily relational rather than primarily transformational. In this frame, work is the product of interacting relationships, not compliance with disembodied processes. Each is free, within ethical boundaries, to engage in offer-bid-accept trades intended to achieve results. How they engage, when they engage, and to a very large part how they produce results is in the individual trader’s hands, understanding that the future viability of the community depends upon sustaining relationships, not simply fulfilling a current need.

I invite you to join this consideration. I need your help, whether that comes as biting criticsm or encouragement. Consider how this frame of reference might change the work you do and we’ll talk.

Relational Work - A Manifesto

If we want to observe what people are capable of, watch what they do when their well-laid plans fall apart. When guided by their own personal desire to succeed, they become relational. They barter and trade, meet what any process designer might label unrealistic commitments, take charge, and often succeed in spite of what the master plan predicted.

But not all people respond to things falling apart in this way. Some hunker down, waiting for instruction and hold ever more tightly to reins no longer connected to anything. These unfortunate folks struggle to make the shift from compliant worker to skillful trader, and might well blame their overseers for their difficulty. And they might be right to blame.

Humans are naturally relational, but the conditions of our continued employment seem to mitigate against freely relating with others. We fear those who have control over our futures. We reasonably fear those who tell us what to do, expecting us to comply rather than question their directions. The effect of such conditioning is to reduce the judgment guiding a firm to that of its designated management and to rob the firm of its greatest potential competitive advantage.

What if we more deliberately approached work as being relationship-guided rather than process-driven? What would this do to our plans, our management, our control, and our results? If we merely encouraged people to do what they do from the outset? Would this change our experience when our plans fail? Would it eliminate the need for plans as we have known them?

This is no idle Utopian aspiration, but one rooted in solid principles. I have no idea how we’ve managed to evolve into a work paradigm that focuses upon processes and tasks as the primary means of production, but evidence strongly suggests that we’ve been following the wrong star. We engage in unplannable work yet insist upon finely-detailed plans before engaging in it. We control by means of comparing actual to expected and we lose larger purpose. We are not merely assembling a pre-fabricated appliance when we engage in work, but discovering and creating things. Yet we engage as if we really should be able to cognitively pre-fabricate and then simply follow our assembly instructions. In practice, this method usually falls apart, and when it falls apart, we do what we should have done in the first place.

We are wild in our work when the templates fail, but not completely feral. We might be better informed about the relational nature of our work beforehand, but have been sent to process-oriented training instead. An ounce of focus on relationships could replace every pound of process orientation. Yet we seem to invest in the process-oriented training.

And our experience when things fall apart might then reinforce the need for ever greater process control, not because people are not capable of making their own trades, but because they are not yet very practiced at it in their work. They have been trained away from their natural inclinations and are rusty and clumsy engaging in them as a result.

Some Principles Guiding Relational Work

The Trading Floor is theprimary metaphor guiding relational work.

Relational work is characterized not as a network of input-process-output transformations, but as a web of relationships facilitating trades. Trades are offer-bid-accept transactions which both require and reinforce relationships to consummate.

The medium of exchange is whatever is valued within a given community. Traders are free within the constraints of agreed upon ethics to barter to mutual satisfaction to achieve their objectives.

People are inherently trustworthy. They quite naturally work to improve their community and themselves.

People are responsible for their own trades and methods within a community. They choose what their judgment dictates is most workable for any given trade.

People will satisfy their ethical responsibilities if they know what they are.

There is no detail master plan, but rather a set of aspirations and intentions which are expected to be interpreted differently at first and more similarly by the end.

People will be responsible for satisfying their own commitments if they are freely made and just as freely renegotiated. People wisest about the work they perform.

The manager’s primary focus is to provide context, encourage relationships, and maintain transparency on the “trading floor”.

Communication is an essential element governing transparency.

Executive management chooses the strategic field of play and invites individual traders onto the field.

Individuals judge the effectiveness of their own performance, informed by transparency. People write their own performance evaluations drawing from publicly available data. Ultimately, effectiveness is judged by the willingness of others to trade with an individual.

Resource allocation is achieved by market forces informed by intention more than by dictate. It may be dictated within the bounds of ethics and relationships.

Relationships are tenaciously context-sensitive. They are inevitably resonances of the context interacting with individual intentions and beliefs.

The community is key. Who we believe is in and who we insist is out greatly influences performance.

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