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Agency in Today’s Complex Operating Environment

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Whether in a family team, work team, or community team, most of us operate daily in some sort of collective – a team.  All teams are made up of individuals.  Whether it be two friends starting a company in a garage or tennis pairs in a doubles match, at some point two or more individual agents join to form a team.  Every team starts with individual agents.

In this paper I’m exploring agency in complex environments.  In this context, agency is nothing more than an individual taking an active role to produce a specific effect.  Another assumption in this exploration is that we are working with high performing teams.  Presumably, a large parent organization is intentionally structuring their teams – using operational design principles – to deal with complex problems.  The individuals on these teams, being closest to the problems, can be most effective only when they understand their agency at the team level, relative to the enabling technology and with respect to the larger organization.

In the book Team of Teams, my colleague David Silverman and CrossLead take an organizational view of our military experiences fighting Al Qaeda in an extremely complex and sometimes chaotic environment.  The book describes, as Walter Isaacson writes in the foreword, how “complexity at scale has rendered reductionist management ineffective.”  The book shows that in complex operating environments “efficiency is necessary but no longer sufficient” due to the “speed and exaggerated impact of…terrorists, start-ups, viral trends” and the sheer volume of information and the speed with which technology moves today.  In A New Culture of Learning, John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas, explore learning in a constantly changing environment.  They ask, “What happens to learning when we move from the stable infrastructure of the twentieth century to the fluid infrastructure of the twenty-first century, where technology is constantly creating and responding to change?”   They describe the two elements of frameworks we need to make sense of learning today.  First, a massive information network that provides nearly unlimited access and resources, and second, a bounded and structured environment that allows for unlimited agency.  The two elements they present are a necessary interplay between technology and agency.

Preston Cline, Director, Wharton Leadership Ventures, and Lecturer, McNulty Leadership Program at the University of Pennsylvania, is an expert on Mission Critical Teams (MCTs).  MCTs are small teams “composed of four to twelve pre-screened, experienced agents, and are designed to operate within immersive, high-consequence, and time-pressured environments to resolve complex adaptive problems.”  He researches, trains and educates MCTs across many disciplines such as wildland firefighters, military special operations units, and emergency room doctors. Mr. Cline’s work focuses on the lifecycle and critical operating elements of Mission Critical Teams.  No truly complex problem is solved by just one agent alone.  However, it remains that the entity closest to the problem is the agent [see figure below].

Thus, it is critical that we also have a framework to understand individual agency.  Understanding the stages of individual development, and the responsibility within those stages, increases the effectiveness of agents at the team level.  Understanding agency influences how we interact with applicable technology and determines our contribution to scaling adaptability and cohesiveness of small teams up to the enterprise level.  Understanding agency ultimately determines our contribution to resolving complex adaptive problems.

It is impossible to describe every type of complex problem across an exhaustive set of environments.  Thus, as a basis for maintaining both consistency and common understanding, I use David Snowden’s definition of a complex problem from his Cynefin Framework [see figure below].  Snowden defines a complex problem as one that is evolving, interdependent, dynamic, non-linear, and unpredictable.  These problems require a creative and innovative interdependent team.  Solutions emerge as the problem evolves, and problems continue to emerge as new solutions are implemented.  These problems are time sensitive and consequential meaning failure has a significant negative effect that is sometimes irreversible.  Complex problems are unique and distinct from complicated problems because they do not follow causal patterns.  In a common environment, distinct problems often emerge without clear patters and with little or no regard to previous events.  When dealing with simple or complicated problems, “best” and “good” practices are an analogue for subsequent actions.  To resolve complex problems, as Snowden describes, we “Probe-Sense-Respond” to the problem through “emergent” practice as “best” and “good” practices are likely rendered obsolete by the rapidly changing context and the technology available to solve the problem.

Life, work, and reality are full of disorder.  Many business people with whom I’ve worked describe their situations like this:

“Most of today’s crises are unnecessary and the time/effort expended to deal with these unnecessary crises greatly reduces energy available to respond properly to the crises that are truly necessary.”  Or like this,

“I spend all day running from fire to fire with hardly any time for real priorities that produce real value.”

What I love about Snowden’s Cynefic Framework is that there is an important relationship between problem type and agency.  The relationship exists in that people respond to a situation according to their personal preference for action.  If an agent spends years in a bureaucratic environment, Snowden says, they tend to see problems as a failure of process.  Resolving a problem is a function of a more efficient process.  A deep expert tends to see problems as a result of insufficient time and resources to analyze and respond, and so on with complex and chaotic problems.  What’s important here is recognizing the elements of agency helps one identify problems in an appropriate category thus aiding one’s interactions within a team, relative to a technology, and in relation to the parent organization.

To fully understand agency, defined as the ability to take an active role or produce a specified effect, it is most useful to look through the lens of Ikujiro Nonaka’s work on organizational knowledge and Noel Burch’s “Four Stages for Learning Any New Skill” theory.  The lifecycle of an individual agent, as adapted by Preston Cline, which I’ve subsequently expanded and included here, includes five Stage types and seven levels within each stage [see figure below]: Identity Stage, Process Stage, Learning Stage, Skill/Proficiency Level, and Consistent Demonstration Level.  This model describes where the agent sits relative to how the team identifies them, what’s occurring for the agent within the team, the agent’s level of functional expertise, and how the agent is using their functional expertise and experience.

Identity Stage Process Stage Learning Stage Must Enter with: To Continue, Must Demonstrate:
Applicant Recruiting Unconscious Incompetence Ability Humility
Trainee Training/Induction Conscious Incompetence Perseverance Capability
Rookie Assimilation Conscious Competence Proficiency Expertise
Technician Tasking Unconscious Competence Expert Status Collaboration
Operator Integration Shared Competence Horizontal Awareness/Good Fit
Instructor/Trainer Reflection Reflective Competence Desire to Teach
Alumnus Advocacy Perspective Taking Goodwill

The Identity Stage defines how the community of coworkers or teammates views a person (the agent) at any given time. Another way to think of this stage is as a phase of progress in experience and career progression.  Where an agent sits in their progression is not an official designation, but rather one granted by their peers, the team, or the community at-large.

The Process Stage describes what is happening to the person.  For example, an Applicant is being Recruited and a Trainee is being Trained.  The Operator has passed through an assimilation process, has expertise sufficient to execute any task in his functional area, but is now integrating into a larger context and operational scope.  The Operator is no longer simply working in a division, a function, a sub-team, or a silo.  In taking on Operator level responsibility, the agent is required to become horizontally aware.  The Operator who has Unconscious Competence in their functional expertise now has free cognitive bandwidth to apply most of their energy to collective effort and command and control.

The Learning Stage in this model is the core expansion of Burch’s “Four Stages for Learning Any New Skill” model including a place for the Operator, Instructor/Trainer, and Alumnus.  The primary difference between the Technician and Operator is the ability to move from deliberate and reactive functional skills to proactive and responsive behavior, integrating functional skills within and across a team and organization.

The things with which an Agent “Must Enter” phase is not fully developed.  I view this as an opportunity for broader investigation.  There are many things – practical skills, theoretical frameworks, and a psychological approach – with which a person must enter each Identity Stage.  The descriptors in the table are neither exhaustive nor complete but merely a starting point for further study.

In the case of “To Continue, Must Demonstrate,” this is similar to that which an Agent “Must Enter.”  As an example, a Technician and an Operator have achieved expert status.  But the question for moving into the Operator stage is whether that Technician can learn to collaborate and then integrate their skills horizontally across the team and organization.

Over the last 17 years, I’ve worked in both military special operations and in today’s complex business environment.  I’ve worked inside of and led small, mission critical teams, teams of 70 to 150 people such as a special operations task force, and also large organizational structures of thousands of people.  For any size team dealing with resolving complex problems, I’ve observed that the role of the technician (those trained strictly for certainty) is becoming less relevant.  In a complex environment, the Technician is subject to environmental obsolescence (pressure from uncontrollable external forces) and a complacency threat to themselves (internal force).  There is no doubt that there is still an important role for the Technician in dealing with any problem.  In many situations (Simple and Complicated), the Technician’s role may be both central and dominant.  In the complex operating environment, the role of the Technician should be viewed as a very specific but not multifunctional .  The role of Technician has been compressed.  Why?  Because the Technician must rely on the idea that the future will be more or less like the present.  However, the reality is that small things in a complex system may have no effect or conversely a massive effect on the environment.   It is virtually impossible to know which of the Technician’s solutions will turn out to be appropriate.  As the Technician’s role has been compressed, I believe the Rookie and Operator roles have both expanded and become more relational in both application and philosophy.

Kano Jigoro understood the power of the philosophy of being a Rookie. Jigoro (October 1860 – May 1938) founded Judo.  Jigoro also served as director of primary education for Japan’s Ministry of Education.  He has been noted for mottoes such as “Maximum Efficiency with Minimum Effort” and “Mutual Welfare and Benefit.”  What I like most about Kano Jigoro’s story is that before he died he gathered his closest students.  He asked of them, “”When you bury me, do not bury me in a black belt! Be sure to bury me in a white belt!” In martial arts the white belt is the symbol of a beginner—an apprentice who has many things yet to learn.  In the US Navy SEAL teams where I served from 1998-2011, we believe a critical element to a high-performing mindset is that you show up every day as if you are always being selected.  We never want the Technician who believes “they’ve arrived” because “complacency kills.”  I believe Jigoro’s philosophy is even more relevant today than it was at the end of the 19th century.

Today’s complex environment demands an effective agent maintain the mindset of a Rookie.  In being merely consciously competent, the Rookie must concentrate fully on functional skills and the environment in which he operates.  We cannot assume we have everything figured out and that our mental models are accurate analogues for future events.  We cannot let things become “second nature”.  Second nature goes extinct in complex operating environments.  This operational paranoia forces us to continually test assumptions, old mental models, and “best” or “good” practices.  This helps us develop our sharpness (Klein, G., Sources of Power).  As for the Operator, this role is the most critical in a complex operating environment.

The Operator has the experience and functional skill of an expert.  Thus, he has the spare cognitive bandwidth to take on the responsibility of, as Ann Pendleton-Julian writes, “organizing our relationship, in group, to the outside world.” (Pendleteon-Julian, A., Four (+1) Studios).  To be truly effective in this complex environment, the Operator has the responsibility of integrating experts through horizontal awareness but thinking like a Rookie.  Operational collaboration and integration are not nearly as threatened by obsolescence as static functional expertise.  The Operator’s Shared Competence is contributing to a collective cognition, integrating the team along appropriate lines through horizontal awareness.  We know from Preston Cline’s research on MCTs, and other research in human performance design, that the primary cause of human error is not poor decision making but rather poor situational awareness. Said another way, teams make mistakes due to a lack of shared consciousness and collective competence.  The Operator’s role is to build and maintain situational awareness, working from context not just content (Thomas, D. and Brown, J., A New Culture of Learning).

Again, my assumption in this paper is that we are dealing with high-performing teams.   Presumably, the parent organization only has an intentionally structured high-performing team dealing with complex problems.  On such teams, an assumption is that every team member has moved at least through the Rookie Identity Stage.  In an old, traditional, and slow organizational structure expert may have the tendency to stop at Technician.  If an expert stops at Technician, the team will forever only be able to react rather than respond to the changing environment.  The team will be stuck at the stage of a really well trained team, trained to react to certainty, rather than educated to deal with uncertainty.  In complex environments we need teams of expert Operators who think as Rookies, thus resolving problems through collective, shared consciousness with the ability to respond to an array of changing conditions.

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