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Organizational Alchemy Part 3: Catalysts and Interactions

Alchemy is the process of transforming lesser substances into more noble substances. Understanding the specific characteristics of various elements (as we explored in last week’s post) is the first step, but in order to enable “transformation”, we must understand the different ways that elements can be combined and the reactions that transpire as a result. In order to do this, the alchemist needs to understand interactions and the various catalysts that can be used to drive the right type of interactions.

Mastery of catalysts – A catalyst is a substance that increases the rate of a reaction between other elements. By adding certain elements to a mixture, alchemists learned that they could change the overall properties, for example: adding mercury to make the alloy softer; adding sulfur to make it more combustible; or adding salt to make it more solid. However, we can speed up or slow down the reaction to get the desired result by using heat, acids, distillation, more precise measurement techniques, etc. There is a spectrum of tools and processes at the alchemist’s disposal in order to help manage, manipulate, and encourage the desired reactions.

Understanding Cycles & Patterns – It is also critical for an alchemist to understand cycles and patterns so that they utilize a series of precise reactions to more toward the eventual goal. The ancient Chinese understood the physical world in terms of five basic elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water), but more importantly, they understood the reactions and interactions between these elements in terms of “cycles of balance.” One cycle is a generating cycle (e.g. wood feeds fire; fire creates earth (ash); earth bears metal; metal collects water; water nourishes wood) and the other an overcoming cycle (wood parts earth; earth absorbs water; water quenches fire; fire melts metal; metal chops wood). Through understanding cycles of behavior, we can develop frameworks to help us to make sense of what we see and predict future behaviors but also so that we purposefully modify natural interactions to more deliberately drive toward desired outcomes.

The master integrators of today also need to be able to observe subtle patterns to deeply understand interactions and catalysts. While our spectrum of tools and processes may be different from those found in the alchemist’s laboratory, the intent is the same: to understand what prompts vicious cycles and virtuous cycles of engagement and navigate our team’s collective energy toward the creation of something much greater than the sum of its parts. The following are just a few tools at the master integrator’s disposal:

To increase the potency of each element leverage the power of the question.

A well-framed question is arguably the most powerful catalyst in the master integrator’s entire arsenal. In a group, we often wait and hope that the right people will offer the right information at the right time, but that basically leaves our interactions (and their outcomes) to chance. There is a proactive means of getting the same information but with greater certainty, relevancy, and in such a way that drives the collective energy forward (rather than in all sorts of tangential directions): This tool is questioning. By asking a specialist a specific question that drives the conversation in the desired direction, the master integrator can simultaneously: 1) reinforce that person’s roles as subject matter expert, 2) drive the focus of the conversation in a direction it needs to go, 3) gain greater engagement from that person, and 4) frame things in a way that enables others to also understand or learn - gaining a greater common understanding. A well-thought out question can also be used to tactfully expose assumptions, shine light on uncertainty, and hold individuals accountable for the quality of the information they are providing. On a more subtle level, questions can also balance the team dynamic by engaging more soft-spoke individuals, tempering more assertive ones, and redirecting the energy of tangential discussion back toward the collective desired outcome. The art of questioning can be a very powerful skill.

Binding elements together using the “T-Shaped” person to link and build.

A “T-shaped person” is a person that possesses both a breadth and depth of knowledge related to a certain field. They have enough depth of knowledge to understand what a specialist is saying (and whether it is valid) but also enough breadth of knowledge to translate it into other contexts so that it is more relevant to what others in the team may understand. By taking information that one person shared and connecting it to what someone else shared or reframing it in a context that will resonate with others, the T-shaped person is linking information and people together and building a common understanding of the interdependencies between people, the current state of work, and the collective responsibility for the outcome. This “link/build” strategy shifts the group dynamic from “separate individuals just floating in a group” to “engaged elements interacting with each other to create something that didn’t exist prior”. As these elements get closer or more tightly bound together, there is a greater chance for interactions and greater the potential energy in the mix. This energy that could be focused toward productive or destructive outcomes, but this depends on how the tension/conflict is managed.

Creating conflict (the good kind) and managing ambiguity.

Conflict is necessary for change. It can be purposefully created or it can be a reaction to changes in the environment beyond our control. Either way, there is a tremendous amount of energy that is created by conflict. Whether that potential energy gets focused toward productive or destructive outcomes depends on many things.

The first is whether the team is aligned in a way that their collective energy is focused in the same direction (versus in many different and competing directions). This requires clarity in terms of: 1) collective goals, 2) the approach to realizing those goals, and 3) the individual roles and responsibilities and the interdependencies between them. There is a hierarchy to these: A team cannot have a substantive discussion about approach without clarity on goals, and cannot have a substantive discussion about roles/responsibilities without clarity on approach. Clarity and alignment on all three of the items listed above are necessary to set the stage for a highly engaged and productive debate between different perspectives. If there is any ambiguity about those higher order things, then the conversation can (and often does) fall into a vicious cycle and turn destructive. The management of ambiguity is the key to creating positive, productive conflict.

The second is whether the team is aware of how the conflict is influencing their subtle behaviors. Conflict is the creation of a situation where one or more elements involved have to change in order to create a new balance – this can be prompted by a new piece of information that doesn’t work with an old way of thinking or a new consideration that was not contemplated prior. Different people handle conflict and change in different ways. Some people have positive reactions that take the form of learning, adapting, thinking more holistically, or becoming aware of critical missing components that require attention. However, some people react to conflict with defensiveness, stubbornness, anger, aggression, or withdrawal. The key for the integrator is to be highly attuned to the behavioral and social characteristics of their team, create the right type and right amount of conflict, and manage it in such a way that it enables collective understanding, growth, and drive toward transformational outcomes.

Finally, master integrators need to be able to enable virtuous cycles. In our teams, there are two main cycles that occur in every interaction: 1) a psychological cycle based on a person’s valuation of the experience (i.e. how they felt), and 2) a cognitive cycle based on a person’s valuation of the information shared (i.e. what they understood).

  • The psychological cycle is based on trust. Depending on how a person engages with me (what they say, how they say it, etc.), do I trust them? Do I believe that they looking out for the considerations and values that are important to me? If so, then I feel we are committed to similar aims. This, in turn, influences how I perceive information shared by them in the future and also my own willingness to share information. If I don’t trust them, then I will hold more tightly to my own values and be more guarded about what I share and how I interpret information from others.

  • The cognitive cycle is based on learning. If someone shares information in a way that resonates with me, then I will accept that information and learn from it. Since I have learned from something that someone else just shared, our mental models become slightly more aligned and we have more of a common understanding. This, in turn, influences how well I understand addition information shared by that person and what I myself share and how I frame it. In the negative version of this cycle, information is ignored or misunderstood so learning/common understanding does not occur resulting in lost information, missed opportunity, and often frustration and disengagement.

  • These two cycles both hinge on how information is shared and interpreted. They are also strongly interrelated since some of the best ways to create trust is to enable learning and the best way to enable learning (especially radical learning) is to create a high-trust, psychologically safe environment.

This just begins to scratch the surface of the tools and processes at the master integrator’s disposal. The key here is that the master integrator must constantly strive to better understanding the different catalysts and their effects, study the resulting interactions, and use that knowledge to navigate a team in a direction that is positive for the individuals and the collective desired outcome. Through experimentation, learning by doing, and careful reflection and analysis, the master integrator is the one that must take a mixture of basic elements (and their technical, social, and behavioral characteristics) and engage them in the right types of interactions in such a way that is transformative toward some higher purpose.


Much of this post was based on ideas from Chapters 2, 3 and 4 of The Collective Potential: A Holistic Approach to Managing Information Flow in Collaborative Design and Construction Environments.

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