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Productive Informality

Matt Edgar had an exceptional post that a few people have shared about the value of what he calls 'productive informality'. How, in the current environment, overly formal or restrictive language, behaviours and controls are harmful to the conditions that most closely correlate with team success.

There were echoes in Matt's piece of a point I made in this post about how an organisational culture that is characterised by trust is critical to move fast. In cultures characterised by trust implicit rather than explicit communication is emphasised, teams are more unified in achieving a common goal, and staff are empowered with greater freedom of action.

The opposite scenario is characterised by non-inclusive working, late briefing or involvement, arbitrary timelines, detailed and rigid requirements. And as Matt says, when things start to go wrong the instinctive reaction is to impose a tighter rein which simply serves to move you further away from the conditions that will most likely result in success:

'What high-performing teams had found – and struggling ones were missing – was a magical quality I’ve come to understand as “productive informality” – spontaneous, personal, and collaborating as equals…In productive informality we see less forward planning, more ambient awareness, and the levelling effect of information abundance.'

There's a nice point he makes about how, when we're designing for services, we need tolerance and curiosity:

'Productivity in service is infinitely variable. This means that optimising for repeatable, well-known processes with narrow tolerance is actually the fastest way to leave value lying on the table. Instead we have to tune in to the needs of customers, no two of whom are alike. Only through continuous, informal communication can we discern and meet the full, diverse, messy, constantly shifting range of customer needs.'

Informality grows from trust, and trust is earned through delivery. And so there is a virtuous circle where service productivity builds trust, and that trust begets informality, which in turn enables faster, richer, continual learning which is critical for any service to be productive. 

Productive informality needn't mean a lack of governance. But perhaps it's about focusing more on outputs than on inputs. So I agree with Matt - we really should put down all behaviour that is harmful to informality.

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