Perspective coordination can be a need, skill, solution, or a problem. Dawson (2020) defined perspective coordination as:
“…a dynamic set of skills that supports human interactions by fostering mutual respect, nurturing creativity, expanding our minds, generating and developing ideas, leveraging conflict, and supporting healthy relationships. Robust collaborative capacity skills are a prerequisite for the development of perspective coordination skills, but you will also find that practices for building perspective coordination skills build collaborative capacity skills. Wheels within wheels.”Dawson, Theo (2020) “VUCA unpacked (3)—Perspective coordination” https://theo-dawson.medium.com/vuca-unpacked-3-perspective-coordination-13e722981ce6 Retrieved 1 Jan 2024
And Dawson provided a helpful concept map:
Why might perspective coordination might be a need?
It’s because you need people. If you had total independence, total freedom from dependents and their dependencies, complete liberty to act without anybody, then you wouldn’t need to coordinate perspectives. You’d orient yourself. You’d organize yourself. You would simply make a decision to act, and then you would act.
It’s because you need people to decide for themselves to own a course of action, and to act accordingly, that you need perspective coordination. This idea might be a problem for some. What if all degrees of freedom, all opportunity for exploration, all chances for variation, for a course of action has been standardized away?
In some environments, in order to manufacture certainty, a compound task is broken into the smallest units and systematized into a checklist. In order to produce consistency of outcome, they eliminate as much of the judgement as possible. They don’t need to care about what people think because they aren’t expecting to them to think. Every hamburger gets exactly one trigger pull of 20ml of ketchup placed in the exact centre of the meat disk. It is not to be placed on the lettuce nor on the bun. The ketchup belongs in the centre of the standard burger unit only. It is not squirted along the edges in a circle or semi-circle. It’s not 10ml. It’s exactly 20ml, one pull of a trigger for exactly 20ml of the standard ketchup. The franchisee is not allowed to substitute the ketchup for another brand. The franchisee is not allowed to modify the ketchup in any way, either by adulterating it by adding water or filler, nor by enhancing it with mustard seed or tomato paste because they like it that way. It is to be 20ml of the standard ketchup provided by the franchise distributor. There is no discussion required. They don’t need anybody to add their unique value on this dimension. While Corporate always appreciates feedback from the franchisees about the customer experience and are always looking for ways to leverage the collective wisdom across the entire network, they will take all proposals under advisement. We appreciate your input.
The checklist coordinates all the perspectives, simultaneously, in every franchise location, in every hand, in every land. The perspective on ketchup allocation is fully integrated. Nothing else is required. It is very simple. Do as you’re told. Autonomy has been reduced to its narrowest possible point. All problems will be resolved if you follow proper protocols. Properly follow proper protocols.
And on the front line of production, the worker still has to make a decision as to whether or not they are going to comply or not. Even then, it’s a binary decision. The worker can make a decision to modify their behaviour to the systems’ requirements, or not. Rest assured that there is a standardized checklist for handling valuable team members who experiencing difficulties with executing their job duties to the excellent specifications which comply with local labour regulations without legal complication.
Thought doesn’t matter when task complexity approaches its lowest possible state. People don’t matter because if the operational expense of a human performing a task is less than the capital expense of a robot performing a task, then the human will be displaced by the robot. In such circumstances, the real catastrophe is the slowness in the accumulation of social capital. People are capable of so much more.
Most of the value-add in the economy uses human thought to add value. In some parts of the economy, people add value because they think. People that care deeply, think deeply.
In parts of the economy where the judgement and creativity people matter, the ability of management to organize complexity into atomic tasks and standardize them to the lowest possible state is limited by compute time and attention. The specification for ketchup application to a single stacked burger is in the realm of what’s achievable. The specification for capturing perfect audio with clarity and warmth in a granite cavern isn’t nearly as straight forward. A lot of the things that people learn to create are like that: they take skill.
In these contexts, the perspective of people matters enormously. So their motivation matters. They have to not only understand the change that is asked of them in a broader context, but also how the change translates to a set of actions they will need to own to make it work for the part of the system that they have accepted stewardship for. Decision-making is fundamentally a process by which people take responsibility for a course of action (Allison and Graham, 1999).
Why might perspective coordination be considered a skill?
Dawson’s mind map suggests that it’s a constellation of skills: facilitation, listening, talking, empathizing, researching, analyzing, synthesizing, organization, connection, ideation, creation, mapping, sorting, fact checking, definition, exhortation, and evaluation. Is that all?
The challenge, risk, and opportunity all scale non-linearly as the number of participants goes to infinity. Coordinating the perspectives of 8.1 billion is several orders of magnitude more difficult than coordinating a team of 8. When you’re getting up past 10,000, you’re certainly engaging mass media communication skills. There are noticeable discontinuities in the challenge at 2, 4, 8, 16, 48, 102, 148, 256, 1048, 10,000 and 100,000 people. The skills that enable one to assemble a coalition on Prince Edward Island or Rhode Island are similar to Ontario or Texas are similar to the ramp between 2 and 4 people. The steepest learning curve, the home of the greatest dragons, seems to be between 1 and 2, 48 and 102.
Why might perspective coordination be considered a solution?
There are a bunch of metaphors relating a concept of alignment: rowing in the same direction, marching to the same drumbeat, pulling in the same harness, singing from the same sheet, paddling the same canoe and my favourite: herding the cats. These phrases are typically dropped into paragraphs featuring high valence and frustration about a current, lamentable, catastrophic, state of affairs.
The suffering created by dissatisfaction with the status quo is the engine that powers search and ultimately action.
There are ways to cause alignment without coordinating many perspectives. A lot of primate behaviour features the individual with the greatest muscle mass using their muscle power to muscle their will. Authoritarian regimes are predicated on this idea of a singular leader, an alpha chimp, screeching and screaming before a group of imitators, pointing out that there’s scarcity because of others, that they’re right to be suspicious of, and it’s time to not only get even, but to take it all. In the 20th Century, pockets of humanity experienced bursts of progress as a result of a singular individual that managed to get a monopoly on violence. They used it to drive alignment and some progress, on some dimension, was realized. Eurasian soil is drenched in the blood of their victims. The gains were like anything else that bursts: they go bust.
The zero-sum games produce outcomes that sum to zero. The seeds of distrust planted during periods of brutalized alignment grow into weeds and choke the crops of progress. Any advantage realized through methods of fear, suffering, and distrust are temporary. Such systems can’t sustain coordinated activity internally, little though externally. Is it any wonder why Japan lost internal elite cohesion in the early 1910’s when the Meiji Generation passed away (Paine, 2017), why German logistics failed in 1942, or why authoritarians are notoriously terrible at honouring the treaties they make with each other?
I reference these grand scale failures to highlight that at large scales, systems that don’t treat people as though they matter create enormous suffering and geopolitical failure. At small, corporate, scales, systems that don’t treat people as though they matter create suffering and business failure.
Sure, everybody might row in the same direction for a hundred meters…but when Gary has had enough and uses his ore to bludgeon Rick to death. It’s hardly a recipe to stay in any race, especially when there is no finish line.
There’s a tendency in some societies to think that a corporation, a form of private government (Anderson, 2017) can be run like an authoritarian state and remain competitive: as though people can’t change employers, and that they can be sent, at will, to the Gulag. Other than that of outright fraud and grift, it’s difficult to imagine a stance more toxic to capital replication. And yet, there is no shortage of unchecked narcissism in boardrooms. Alpha chimps seek alpha. Why should the 21st Century be any different from the 20th?
Maybe we can know better?
So, if you accept that people matter, and any sustainable solution to the alignment problem is in the application of perspective coordination, then, what kinds of problems persist in the skill itself?
Why might perspective coordination be considered a problem?
And finally we arrive at the teaser in the title: fluid participation (Cohen, March and Olsen, 1972). Fluid participation means that people are jumping in and out of a decision opportunity.
For example, I used to experience the greatest amount of fluid participation over the summer months. I’d start out with somewhere north of 18 senior managers and peers, and over the course of 12 weeks, a different set would come together, sometimes 8, sometimes as few as 6, sometimes 9, always a different assortment, would come in and out, each different a level of energy, and, with continuously updating utility functions.
This is more so challenge when there is a high rate of attrition. If a decision window requires the informed ownership of 100 individuals, and the organization is losing 20 people a year, and owing to the discontinuous nature (Like influenza, attrition is seasonal and socially contagious!), it’s not uncommon for as many as 7 people to leave and show up in a four week window. So, even under maximally expedited circumstances, the physics of the environment creates no fewer than 7 exciting opportunities for vetoes, honest misunderstandings, strategic ambiguity, and blunders to occur.
This is to say, sometimes it can appear as though the bureaucracy is organizing itself in opposition to change from leadership, when, in reality, there simply isn’t enough capacity, enough Random Access Memory, not enough time-space, for the bureaucracy to even calculate a coordinated response to frustrate the leadership. The system itself can’t even coordinate its own consciousness to know that it doesn’t want to own a proposed course of action. Fluid participation may be unto itself a form of bureaucratic inertia.
What might be the solution to problems arising from perspective coordination in environments with high fluid participation?
The most obvious is to reduce complexity by manipulating scope, time, and space.
Just as your mouth has physical constraints, so do the minds of those that need to be engaged. You wouldn’t try to fit an entire watermelon into your mouth because wouldn’t be able to chew. So you manipulate the scope by chunking it out into chewable portions. By reducing the size of the pieces, one reduces work in progress, and increases the overall capacity of the system to understand itself. By reducing the complexity of the work, you make it easier for people to say and mean yes. By reducing the number of interfaces that need to be changed simultaneously, you reduce the risks that need to be mitigated, the number of reputations that are at risk of utter destruction, and reduce the likelihood that fluid participation creates social debt down in the future (a natural result of decision by flight – for more see Cohen, March and Olsen).
You can manipulate time. Periodic decision windows (Kingdon, 1993) offer unsurprising, routine, legitimate, and often welcomed decision opportunities. These offer organic time boxes. Artificial, false senses of urgency, manufactured crises featuring high valence and emotional manipulation, are dishonest, and only serve to erode the credibility of its user. Coordinating perspectives around appropriate decision windows, co-authoring them, credits the reputation account, fosters a virtuous cycle of trust, and produces social capital that enables the organization to tackle higher levels of complexity. It’s akin to strength training. Sure, you could go from benching 80 to 400 in one session, but you’re going to hurt something, and the older the organization is, the longer the recovery time.
And you can manipulate space. How do you prevent any fluid from dripping? You freeze it! There’s nothing like an offsite to produce the opportunity for focus and to freeze the participation. Nobody leaves until a decision is shipped.
This is all to underline the point that there are multiple instruments in the perspective coordination tool shed to orchestrate fantastic results that align with however you’re personally incentivized.
If perspective coordination was easy, it would be trivial to move masses, sustainably, in a manner that compounds, over the medium and long run.
It isn’t easy, so it isn’t trivial.
Allison, G. T., & Graham, A. (1999). Essence of decision.
Anderson, E. (2017). Private government: How employers rule our lives (and why we don’t talk about it). Princeton University Press.
Cohen, M. D., March, J. G., & Olsen, J. P. (1972). A garbage can model of organizational choice. Administrative science quarterly, 1-25.
Dawson, Theo (2020) “VUCA unpacked (3)—Perspective coordination” https://theo-dawson.medium.com/vuca-unpacked-3-perspective-coordination-13e722981ce6 Retrieved 1 Jan 2024
Kingdon, J. W. (1993). How do issues get on public policy agendas. Sociology and the public agenda, 8(1), 40-53.Paine, S. C. M. (2017). The Japanese Empire: Grand Strategy from the Meiji Restoration to the Pacific War. Cambridge University Press.