Seeing the Whole

Jody Hoffer Gittell is a researcher who studies coordination in organizations. She once told me, “Collaboration creates value and silos are not conducive to collaboration.”

Jody believes that coordinating relationships can be viewed from two perspectives. In the conventional perspective the organization is a hierarchy and the emphasis is on the parts. People have functional goals, specific knowledge, and a tendency towards the lack of respect for others. Communication tends to become infrequent, delayed and inaccurate. This leads to silo behavior in which people become increasingly isolated and conflict grows and destroys value.

In the relational perspective the organization is not only a hierarchy, it is also a social network. The network is dynamic. While we think of the hierarchy as stable, the social network never stops changing. Every phone call that comes in, every conversation that occurs, every decision that is made, alters the social network. Connections are continually becoming enriched or depleted and the social system is gaining or losing energy. The social network is always operating as a dynamic whole that is becoming more unified or is becoming more splintered.

Jody’s work suggests that when connections are enriched, organizational performance improves. Enriched connections require shared purpose, shared knowledge and mutual respect.

When people embrace shared purposes they transcend the silo mentality, they take the perspective of the entire enterprise. They can see how what they are doing contributes the whole and as they share and receive knowledge. As this happens everyone may come to better understand their connection to the dynamic whole.

Mutual respect means that everyone, regardless of their status, is valued and this facilitates the sharing of knowledge. Shared purpose, shared knowledge and mutual respect work together. Communication becomes more frequent, timely and accurate. Silos melt and the enterprise begins to flourish.

Normally relational quality and financial efficiency are seen as tradeoffs. When the relational perspective is added to the conventional perspective, Jody claims that quality and efficiency can be improved simultaneously. Employees can achieve better outcomes for customers while better utilizing resources. This is possible because the responsibility for coordination no longer lies at the top. Instead adaptive networks operate close to the customer.

While Jody is advocating the value of the self-organizing processes that emerge in the social network, Jody does not reject the value of the hierarchical structure. The two can reinforce each other. Spontaneous actions are influenced by the existing structures and organizations can create structures that bring forth high collaboration. They include:

  • Selecting participants for cross-functional teamwork
  • Measuring and rewarding cross-functional teamwork
  • Proactively resolving conflicts across functions
  • Developing work protocols that span functions
  • Designing jobs with flexible boundaries
  • Designing boundary spanner roles that support the development of networks

Jody tells interesting story. She did a workshop for surgeons. One indicated that the findings in her scientific papers and her presentation convinced him that focusing on collaboration could improve medical outcomes. Being convinced was not the issue. The issue was his paradigm or world view. Never had he considered the whole social network, all the people who surrounded the process of operating on a person (there are many). Improving the social network was one of the most foreign ideas he had ever encountered. He was not sure how to proceed.

I appreciate this story because the surgeon represents so many individual contributors. They can only see the parts. They have not imagined the importance of the whole. So they cannot attend to the whole and the whole tends to disintegrate over time. It is crucial that leaders see and continually improve the condition of the existing social network.



How well do I see the whole?

What would change, if I continually improved the condition of the social network?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


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