Coordination Neglect: How lay theories of organizing complicate coordination in organizations

by Heath, et al.

Thesis: Organizations often fail to organize effectively because lay theories about organizing lead to coordination neglect

  • The importance of coordination
    • Actors are highly motivated to succeed in their given task; however, they choose bad ways of organizing their actions
    • To accomplish work, orgs have two tasks: 1) motivate and 2) organize properly
      • All of the literature focuses on motivating (i.e. the agency problem) and not so much on organizing
  • What is coordination neglect and what is it not?
    • People have lay theories about lots of things (i.e. social interactions, economic markets, etc)
    • These lay theories are incomplete, and cause psychological blind spots that cause people to neglect to coordinate their actions with other people
  • Partition Focus and Component Focus   
    • To accomplish anything orgs divide up tasks between people; this is good, and the responsible thing to do, however there are some risks to be aware of….
    • Partition Focus:
      • Partition focus: the tendency of people to neglect coordination because they are focused on dividing up tasks rather than combining the components they create to foster integration
      • Lego man study example: most MBA teams partitioned the work and became specialists in the ‘torso,’ ‘head,’ or ‘legs.’ This made assembly more efficient, however, huge issues arose during integration (of the parts) because no one had thought to make a plan about how to integrate things.
      • People think about how to divide work (division of labor) more than how to integrate work; partitioning is a bigger component of coordination neglect
    • Component focus:
      • People focus on their own specific component more than the interaction or interrelations of components
        • i.e top managers at Xerox focused on specialization (to the point where people were overspecialized) and lost sight of the bigger picture; they created to modern day PC first but failed to look at the macro picture and see the significance of this
      • Can blind people from realizing the source of their previous successes…
        • i.e. Du Pont created Nylon and then overinvested in research to find ‘new nylons’ instead of keeping their business profitable by looking into complementary products
      • US Navy during WWII copied components of the British Navy, like technology, and this didn’t make them any more successful. They only found success when in addition to the technology of the British Navy, the US copied the Brits org
  • Inadequate communication and Insufficient Translation
    • Orgs can integrate in many ways:
      • Establish rules or routines that standardize actions
      • Establish plans or schedules that govern independent actions
      • Most important way to integrate: communicate on an ongoing basis
    • Coordination neglect is magnified when people fail to communicate on an ongoing basis
    • Inadequate communication
      • Managers systematically underestimate the importance and difficultly of communication when they plan important tasks
        • when projects fall behind managers add more people to the project instead of communicating more; this leads to more communication problems because of onboarding new people to project and new people must be integrated into the existing communication channels
        • Brook’s law: “Adding people to a late software project makes it later”
      • People are likely to misattribute coordination problems to agency problems
        • It is very common for people to be blamed for ‘lack of effort’ when directions seem to be clear; rather than giving people the benefit of the doubt because the coordination isn’t all there
    • Insufficient Translation
      • Specialization creates “new languages (jargon)” that if not translated or communicated effectively can sink integration
        • Specialists choose industry specific abbreviations and symbols without thinking about how they translate to the industries they work with
        • Engineers make more elaborate drawings to make things “more clear”; further documentation leads to further communication problems
      • People in roles that bridge gaps, are often undervalued and are usually the first to go during downsizing….this makes the problem worse
      • Emotional barriers to translation
        • Translation is rational and people ignore the emotional part of communication, which can be key
  • Bad (and good) ways to repair coordination neglect
    • Bad ways that make things worse..
      • Decreasing division of labor can create a lack of requisite expertise
      • Generically using team meetings to solve all coordination issues…more communication is not always better
    • Good ways
      • Use special processes that force integration among separate workers
      • Organizing a process handbook
  • If people fully understood the difficulty of coordination they wouldn’t be as apt to believe in conspiracy theories
    • People believe things are more planned and centralized than they really are—hence, coordination neglect

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