Sustaining Adaptive Oversight

The word “oversight”, has two mirror meanings. The usual meaning, most frequently encountered, is that of observing something in broad context. The often neglected meaning, as in “we’ve had an oversight”, refers to missing or failing to notice something. This dual meaning makes oversight more attractive to us than governance.

In the last two decades, many practitioners have embraced the values and principles of The Agile Manifesto for Software Development. On this journey, many have discovered the value of self-organisation in small, cross-functional teams of generalising specialists.

The Dangers of Alienation

Since organisational habits of control and inertia have often interfered with the work of continuous improvement, some of us have cultivated sarcasm aimed at management and the work of governance in general. We have grown accustomed to Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss being inept and utterly oblivious to the necessities of competence, and to Catbert’s deliberate malevolence. Unfortunately, this attitude of disgust aimed at management is highly dangerous and counter-productive.

It is dangerous, in that it alienates people in positions of authority. No-one likes to be regarded with disrespect and disdain, least of all people in positions of influence. We prefer to be appreciated and welcome in our communities.

And it is counter-productive, since if we are to sustain any improvements in our ways of work over time, we need the willing support of the people in positions of influence.

The Intent of Oversight

We propose instead that good oversight is essential in all endeavours and that excellence in oversight is vital for long-term organisational flourishing.

For example, when teams get absorbed in the subject matter of their work, they can easily miss critical elements in the broader global, social, economic or organisational context. A good oversight function can alert the team of such lapses, and support the exploration of the ensuing opportunities.

Good oversight can also have a salutary role when teams invent new capabilities or discover useful innovations. In such situations, oversight can disseminate the discoveries and make the value available more broadly.

In our experience, good oversight cannot be achieved just by following a pre-set recipe or in a manner careless of context. It requires adaptation by maintaining a dynamic balance between a number of tensions, considered within the specific organisational context and focus. We propose that adaptive oversight calls for balancing at least the following concerns:

1. Control and Trust

2. Constraints and Value & Quality

3. Personal Interest and Organizational Purpose

4. Reliable Capability and Exploration & Innovation

5. Utilisation and Flow

6. Safety and Courage

Control and Trust

The more we seek to control other adult people’s actions, the less they will be willing to cooperate. Yet if we were to trust people to do whatever they wish and relinquish control completely, then we cannot be assured of achieving any given purpose.

An effective adaptive oversight function extends trust and senses the degree of control currently exerted on the people engaged in the work. It is the role of leaders to nurture sufficient professional competence and organisational clarity of purpose so that control can be relaxed and trust may be justifiably extended.

Constraints and Value & Quality

Our work is always subject to various constraints, and some are inescapable. We never have unlimited time, budget and scope to explore and find how our work might prove valuable. We must pursue value, and deliver it with acceptable quality, within our constraints.

Finding great value also requires the humility to accept that initial ideas about scope and product design might not match well what the intended customers really need. In addition, the aspects of quality that are most important may be influenced by a similar dynamic. Inviting effective feedback and acting on it becomes essential.

If we over-emphasise the conformance to constraints (such as being on-time, on-budget, on-scope), we are likely to miss significant opportunities for delivering value. As we create new offerings of potential value, we may discover previously unexpected insights. As people start using our new creations, they may discover unexpected scenarios.

An effective oversight function learns to discover and pursue value with quality while maintaining just enough conformance to constraints.

Personal Interest and Organisational Purpose

Why am I working? Likely in large part because I get some personal benefit by doing so. But if I’m working only just enough to serve my own interest, and I don’t care enough about our organisation’s purpose, it’s quite likely that our organisation may fail to meet the needs of its intended beneficiaries or customers. And when our organisation fails, I stop getting the personal benefit I sought.

Conversely, if we push people to serve the organisational purpose and ignore their personal interests, we won’t have a sustainable organisation. Overburdened people will eventually either collapse or revolt.

Therefore, an effective oversight function finds ways to attract people that can be inspired to embrace the organisation’s purpose and integrate harmoniously their personal interests into their work. The wise oversight function will sense how people’s personal interests shift over time and by design may adjust goals and the system of work in pursuit of sustained synergy and harmony.

Reliable Capability and Exploration & Innovation

Let’s suppose we have a successful organisation. We achieve our purpose, and deliver a good value flow to our beneficiaries and customers. To keep this good thing going, we must maintain our competence and capabilities. Otherwise, as time passes and people come and go, we may jeopardise the quality or value of our products or services.

However, we may have a brewing challenge if we exploit our current offerings and fail to adapt and innovate to address the shifting dynamics of the economic context. Witness classic examples such as Blackberry, Blockbuster, Kodak, Nokia and Polaroid— all former giants of industry that fell into oblivion or obscurity for failing to explore and innovate well while attempting to continue to squeeze profits from increasingly obsolete products or services.

Organisations that thrive successfully over time have learnt to master the ambidexterity of reliable delivery and ingenious innovation. An effective adaptive oversight function cultivates the foresight to invest enough in innovation while delivering good value through its current offerings.

Utilisation and Flow

When we are engaged in work, we find waste distasteful. No one much likes to twiddle thumbs. We’d all much rather have interesting work to do, that captivates our attention and rewards us with well-earned achievements.

We are suffering from an unintended side-effect of intense specialisation. When we set out to achieve complex work as a production line that sequences highly specialised tasks, we want to ensure that each work station is fully utilised. The probability that each workstation will manage to process work with the same velocity is close to nil. This in turn means that work will pile up in certain bottleneck areas, and the overall flow of value will be reduced.

On a busy highway with human drivers, traffic will slow down and overall trip durations increase. Phantom queues may lead to intermittent stand-stills as well. As congestion eases, speeds may increase again safely, and trip durations shorten.

The effective oversight function notices the areas of overburden and bottleneck in each value stream and addresses these constraints in ways that improve the flow of value and work.

Safety and Courage

In the past few years, we’ve rediscovered that psychological safety is vital for achieving high performance in our work. Google’s Project Aristotle and its re:work initiative have highlighted a range of flaws in certain previously popular assumptions.

And yet, it has become alarmingly easy to overdo safety, in misguided attempts to protect people from any potential discomfort that might be triggered by disruption of their perspectives or ideas.

To combat groupthink, we must practice courage and welcome a diverse range of challenges to our views or ways of thinking. By practicing genuine inclusion, welcoming into conversation people with views that diverge from our own, we can learn more effectively how to become of mutual value to each other. As we learn to collaborate, we can then achieve innovation by continuing to practice courage and deliberately invite challenges to our goals, plans and perspectives.

As such, the effective oversight function will practice the courage to nurture a foundation of psychological safety that provides genuine inclusion, supports learning, enables collaboration and actively invites challenges.

Achieving Balance through Polarity Mapping

In any particular organisation, there may be even more tensions worth balancing, unique to that setting. However, we find that the six tensions outlined above are a good-enough starting point.

For each tension, consider drawing inspiration from the polarity mapping approach. Imagine we’re attempting to balance two polarities on a horizontal axis, one on the left, one on the right.

The polarity mapping process starts by recounting the negative implications of focusing excessively on the left polarity. Then, it considers the benefits of good focus on the right polarity. We progress by envisaging the negative implications of excessive focus on the right polarity, and then return to considering the benefits of good focus on the left polarity.

This sequence builds empathy between the people that might be tempted to invest in just one polarity to excess and ignore the other.

At this point, we can spend some time imagining the win-win vision that supports the greater purpose in pursuit of which we seek to achieve balance and have just enough of both polarities in balance. Then, we can contemplate the deeper fears arising from an imbalance between these polarities.

Finally, we close by taking account of the noticeable and preferably measurable warning signs of either dysfunction or good operation, and identify specific countermeasures to be taken in case of creeping imbalance. 

All this work of polarity mapping requires time and effort. Many people called to serve in oversight functions have their calendars chock-full of meetings. Therefore, a natural objection could arise along the lines of “we’re so busy already, what makes you think we’ll have time to spend in some workshops, exploring all these polarities?”

I offer the following: suppose we don’t set aside the time. We will continue to struggle and suffer from imbalances. We will pay a hefty price in lost ingenuity, reduced engagement and productivity, and diminishing value.

The good news is that we can improve our oversight habits and become more adaptive. It takes is some improvement in our focus, and some discipline to practice better habits. How soon would you like to start?

Sustaining Adaptive Oversight

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