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A love triangle is a messy thing when it comes to people and therefore best avoided. However, in every business (or any organisation for that matter), there is a love triangle at work which can make or break the business and the careers of the people within it. Our attitude towards it is also a major thread in our career paths and good or bad, it affects our success outcomes.
As it goes with triangles, there are three players in this scenario. These three players have always formed a natural part of my work as I help businesses function better internally. For a long time though, I had more of an innate sense of the importance of their interaction than a specifically defined approach. As the list of detailed process and management topics I focus on steadily grew over the years, it became increasingly difficult to answer the simple question, 'What do you do for a living?' To further complicate matters, I spend much of my time working with design practices, which have complex requirements. Even my elevator pitch needed a 150 storey ride.
And so, in an effort to distill all that I do down to a 5 storey elevator pitch, I decided to define the core areas I give attention to. For every topic I tested, a simple truth emerged. By instinct (or just sheer dumb luck), I have always aligned my approach with what appears to be a very natural law of business, quite likely a natural law of any endeavour. A law which requires three specific players to form an interrelated, interdependent love triangle.
Three individual relationships need to be forged between them and because of these inter-relationships, the three separate parts become a powerful whole. This is when the magic happens. (The magic being business innovation and sustainability with positive impact, financial reward and career enjoyment.)
You already know the players. You may just not have realised how much they mean to one another or how much their relationships could mean to you.
So, let's introduce them formally:
Player number 1 - Management System. Oh, that dirty word sitting in the ashes of so many closed-loop third party certified systems - tacked on and mostly separated from the real goings-on in a business (not that it needs to be like that). Let's move that perception aside though and define Management System as the actual management framework the business operates within. The way it organises itself, including the structures for business planning, communication, review, people & data management. So in practical terms we're talking about planned conversations (meetings) and reviews, planned reporting, planned authority and responsibility - the flow of what gets looked at, talked about and decided, when and by whom. Truly the habitual management actions within the business (whether effective or not), which will identify the specific work people will have to do to achieve necessary outcomes.
And as soon as specific work has been identified, in comes Player 2: Workflow, defining HOW the work must be done. So here we're talking about best process and also how that process is supported with anything from a simple form to be filled in or guidance document to be read, all the way over to software solutions and cloud based applications. Workflow exists to prompt and guide people to do what is needed in a way that will ensure happy clients, reduce risk for the business, improve efficiency and so on.
However, it turns out that defined Workflow and all it's support mechanisms can be as clear, tidy and shiny as you like, much will over time be ignored and quite often fall by the wayside if it doesn't have a close relationship with Player 1: Management System. As is often said, people do what is inspected, not what is expected. This is not about having a dig at employees, but more about the tendency we all have to do things our own way to naturally satisfy what is most important to us. But what is most important to any one of us, is highly unlikely to include all parts of the larger framework of requirements which will make an organisation thrive. This means we need constant overview and review by others to keep us balanced, no matter what level we operate at, whether a team member, team leader, manager, director, CEO or a board member.
So when Workflow and Management System form a close relationship, it means that the actual outcomes of people's process is included in regular management review and conversation. Process is therefore highly visible and it becomes obvious when it deviates from the preferred Workflow. Supportive early reminders and teaching therefore become a natural part of the conversation and Management System turns into a true leadership framework.
Alternatively, a deviation from Workflow might teach Management System something new and useful about Workflow's needs, helping both to adjust, strengthen, innovate and continue to function well over time. All up, Management System needs to keep in touch with and encourage Workflow to also keep itself operating at its most useful level.
Similarly, Workflow needs Management System for consistent guidance so it can adapt and remain effective within the larger framework of the organisation.
Over time, each of these two players should learn to grow and adapt to support the other better, each becoming stronger because of its relationship with the other. Except this is not what happens at all. When the initial intrigue wanes, Players 1 and 2 find themselves with no energy and they struggle to maintain interest in one another. Something crucial is missing.
This is where the 3rd player, Individual Engagement, becomes important.
Both Management System and Workflow are flawed players - they can see far into the future, but lack long term drive to achieve results unless people support them. With only one another, they quickly become unfuelled vehicles. However, as soon as they build a relationship with Individual Engagement, they are fuelled, they become useful and real momentum starts.
Thankfully, Individual Engagement willingly and happily completes this love triangle, because it also needs the other two players to survive and thrive. With the bigger picture thinking of Management System, it has clear guidance as to what it could get excited about and what it could achieve. With the clarity and purpose of well-defined Workflow, Individual Engagement knows exactly how to apply its considerable amount of energy and over time achieves a great deal.
It is important to note that the reason Individual Engagement trusts the guidance it receives from both Management System and Workflow individually, is because that advice had clearly been crafted within their own highly functional relationship.
So they all know they need one another. They also know that if they don't keep all three of the bonds between them strong, Individual Engagement will achieve very little, will grow small and weary over time and inevitably step back, only to be replaced by its sad and sometimes mean little cousin, named Apathy.
Apathy will ruin them. Since Apathy can't fuel Management System and Workflow, they will no longer have the energy to strengthen themselves to support the other better. Each will shrink. They will look at their own diminished selves and blame one another for their own state, then eventually blame Apathy for not taking care of them, not doing what is needed to make things better. They will limp along, the people in the organisation will limp along with them, goals slipping through fingers, dreams ebbing away.
Nobody wants this to happen. So Management System and Workflow take note of the value Individual Engagement brings and both continue to nurture a robust and supportive relationship with it. As they do for one another, both also consistently look for ways to strengthen themselves in order to support Individual Engagement better: they keep themselves organised so they can guide clearly, they communicate consistently, they listen carefully, they learn and they innovate.
The organisation thrives. The people in it know they are working in a place which is simply and cleverly organised. They feel their own worth, they see their own impact and they look for ways to give more of themselves, because they want to make a difference.
And the people are happy, but not too surprised, when they learn that each one of them is playing a crucial role in keeping all of the Three Players and the relationships between them alive.