7th Global Peter Drucker Forum

The Oscillation Principle
by Nancy Dixon

In 2013 the CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Meyer, told workers they could no longer work at home.

 

She said that communication and collaboration was important, and that speed and quality was often sacrificed when working at home, to be the best Yahoo! meant being physically together.

 

Marissa’s reasoning was sound, her solution was flawed. It is neither wise nor effective to turn our backs on the benefits that a virtual work force brings. But it is also true that in this increasingly digital age we have lost something that is needed to make organizations both humane and effective places to work. What has been lost are the relationships and sense of purpose that can only be built by having in-depth conversations about issues that matter. I call it collective sensemaking, based largely on the work of Karl Weick.

 

Perhaps the most common misconception about adopting virtual work is that it is an all-or-nothing proposition; such that once we have networking tools in place there is no need to come together, or conversely, we have to be “at work” all the time. But knowledge workers have two strong drives, 1) the need for autonomy, that is, “knowledge workers have to manage themselves.” and 2) the need for a purpose that inspires and unites them.

 

The way to satisfy both needs is to blend sophisticated virtual tools with periodic, in-depth, face-to-face collective sensemaking.  I refer to this as the “oscillation principle” and I have studied how organizations implement the principle.

 

My research shows there are several elements needed to achieve the benefits of oscillation:

  1. Scheduled, rather than ad hoc, oscillation between autonomous work and units coming together face-to-face
  2. Holding knowledge workers responsible for making collective sense of the problems and issues they are mutually facing when convened in face-to-face meetings
  3. The frequent use of sophisticated, mediated interaction to stay connected in between face-to-face meetings
  4. A change in the role of manager from “problem solver” to “conversation architect,” e.g. convening knowledge workers about tough issues

 

One of my case studies is Proquest, an information company that connects people with vetted, reliable information.  The 30 strong Research Solutions Division come together for a three-day Summit every four months to plan the work they will be carrying out virtually.  In between Summits, team members are in daily communication with each other using multiple forms of social media. Taco Ekkel, the division manager, of the Research Solutions Division says,  “We would need four scheduled calls to accomplish what we get solved around a white board in an hour. Without the Summits it would definitely slow things down.”

 

Olsen and Olsen note that, “Effective communication between people requires that the communicative exchange take place with respect to some level of common ground. Common ground refers to that knowledge which the participants have in common, and they are aware that they have it in common.”

Ekkel views social time as essential to building common ground so makes sure work sessions end at 5, “We’re in the bar by 5:30.”

 

Ekkel exemplifies the shift from manager as problem solver to conversation architect. He creates the culture for collective sensemaking to take place by:

 

  • Actively seeking members’ input into the agenda
  • Giving decision-making power to the group
  • Summits show little or no hierarchy
  • Whiteboarding to build group ownership of ideas and to get ideas from everyone
  • Almost daily, virtual meetings to keeps everyone aware of what everyone else is doing
  • A visually rich medium used for virtual meetings
  • Holding sacrosanct social time to foster building the all important relationships between members

 

The benefits of the oscillation principle result from combining the best attributes of virtual work and face-to-face convening:

 

Convening contributes:

  • Commitment to jointly made decisions
  • Shared understanding of goals/purpose
  • Components, developed independently, that smoothly come together into meaningful wholes
  • Innovative solutions to complex issues as a result of drawing on the cognitive diversity of those convened
  • A sense of community, cohesion, and belongingness

Virtual contributes:

  • The ability to draw on the global talent pool
  • Reduction in the cost of office space
  • Autonomy that provides knowledge workers greater opportunity to experiment and try out new ideas
  • Being able to respond quickly to local customers
  • More satisfying integration of work and family life.

 

This diagram from Maznevski & Chudoba illustrates the regular oscillation between high intensity periods of collective sensemaking (the tallest peaks) and periods of virtual work in which the group interacts through virtual media with varying levels of richness. Groups learn to select the appropriate media based on the task.  Ekkel acknowledges,” We often delay discussions around features of a certain magnitude until the next Summit, knowing we’d never really effectively get them conceptualized without the richness of face-to-face contact coupled with sketching.”

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In the Proquest example workers are both virtual and remote. But the oscillation principle is equally applicable to organizations with workers that spend much of their time in a client office or other remote site, working from home one or more days a week, or work at “hot desks” when they come to the office.  Without a way to periodically, fully connect around issues that matter, these workers, as well as their more remote colleagues, too often find themselves disconnected from their colleagues and the mission of their unit.

 
The frequency of oscillation varies based on two critical factors 1) the interdependencies within the task that the unit is responsible for, and 2) the complexity of the issues. For example, a virtual team that is designing a product for an emerging market might need to come together for 2 days every two months. A team with less complex issues might come together every 3 months for one day.

 

The more virtual organizations become, the greater the need for oscillating back together on a regularly scheduled basis. I can conceive of a time when employees will conduct their individual work where it is most convenient to do so. They will come together to coordinate, innovate, share new experiences, gain in-depth understanding of an issue they are all are facing, solve problems, and develop strategy. There will be an understanding that when they convene it is to make use of all the knowledge and analytical ability that is in the room. Everything else will be effectively conveyed virtually.  The normal way of working will be: Isolate to concentrate, Convene to collaborate!

 

About the author:

Nancy Dixon’s company, Common Knowledge Associates, helps managers create a conversation environment to make the oscillation principle work in addressing difficult organizational issues.

8 thoughts on “The Oscillation Principle
by Nancy Dixon

  1. Hi Nancy

    Nice article. You write: “The normal way of working will be: Isolate to concentrate, Convene to collaborate!” This sounds like a good rule of thumb for many situations.

    One question is whether it applies to all situations. For very complex tasks, such as computer programming with very complex problems, particularly where the nature of the problem to be solved isn’t understood in advance, some research suggests that what is known as pair programming, (which is in effect “continuous convening,”) can be more productive than “oscillation” between isolating and convening. To traditional management, this appears to make no sense because it costs more in terms of staff time, but research suggests that pair programming can result in higher quality code with fewer defects to fix, and so in the end is both more efficient and more effective. Does your research shed any light on this?

    As to Marisa Meyer and Yahoo: do we know what was the problem she was trying to solve and did her change in policy resolve it?

    1. Steve,
      By all accounts Marissa Meyer and Yahoo! are both doing very well, but the extent to which it was the result of bringing people in, I haven’t heard.

      I’m certainly a fan of pair programming, and like you believe it reduces defects and is a kind of continuous convening. It is a good example of the value of having more than one perspective on an issue, a la Scott Page and cognitive diversity

  2. Support for the “oscillation principle” is coming from many different places. The theory is supported by the study of natural ecosystems that continually oscillate between long quiet periods of growth and development and rapid bursts of destruction and creation.

    Empirical evidence is coming for the work of Sandy Pentland of MIT who hangs “sociometers” round people’s necks to pick up several dimensions of body language. He can predict performance based on the effectiveness with which teams come together to engage and then disperse to explore. We have long known that this engage/ explore pulse is a feature of hunter/gatherer bands as they search for mobile, ephemeral resources in a vast landscape.

    See my blog: http://www.davidkhurst.com/the-ecology-of-innovation/

    1. David,
      Thanks for this confirmation with Pentland’s work. I had read an article of his, but now will buy the book. I like your natural ecosystem analogy. I like the steering mechanism analogy as well using March’s work.

  3. The oscillation principle sounds all great and obvious when it is described as you describe it. However, all this seems to function on the premise that there is no conflict, there is no competition between “knowledgeworker” and that all they are interested in is to further the neds of the company. Sounds like paradise. Maybe Proquest is, but the question is for how long. And are all companies like that? what about cliques, struggles for influence, what about attempts to engineer and or manipulate decisions, what about all the things that make organizations the political entities they are? And how does oscillation deal with that. With more frequent convening?
    Another question: Manager as converationbuilder sounds great. But who hands out the bonuses and the penalties? Who evaluates whom. Even old style managers sre more than just problemsolvers – they have, like it or not, a dsiciplinary function. What happens to that in oscillation.

    Understand me right. I do not contest oscillation as a reasonable principle, but I have my doubts about the organizational fluidity and elasticity that is a sort of premise for the well functioning of oscillation.

    1. Erhard,
      One of phenomenon that happens when people come together for collective sensemaking is a growing sense of community and relationship that ameliorates against the kinds of manipulation who are concerned about. In my own blog there is a full case study of Proquest that explains what happens in those meetings http://www.nancydixonblog.com/2014/05/-proquest-case-study-using-the-oscillation-principle-for-software-development.html. Let me know what you think

  4. I like this principle “Isolate to concentrate, Convene to collaborate!” However, I can see that there is also “oscillation cost” which need to be managed. By oscillation cost I mean the cost that its takes for the participants to convene. Included in the oscillation cost can be the fare from participant’s residence to the venue of gathering, the logistics necessary and the like.

  5. Jed, you are right about there being a cost for convening. That cost is often ameliorated by savings in office space.

    When I asked Proquest about cost here is the response I got,” “The cost of our team is quite large because we want the best of the best, who are usually freelance people. This means the hourly cost of the team is more than the travel costs.”

    The cost, of course, is directly related to the frequency and to the sophistication of the social media used. Proquest at first met 4 times a year, but discovered that they had not finished all the work before they were meeting again so they moved to 3 times a year.The team leader says, “After four months we are out of steam and have a loss of shared sense of direction.” So for the ProQuest team coming together for three days every four months seems the most effective frequency.

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