The Middle System – Why Cross-Functional Collaboration Doesn’t Happen And What To Do

This article also exists as a 5-minute videoClick here to watch if you’d prefer that to reading.

We all want more cross-functional collaboration, whether you’re an executive wanting the areas to sort it amongst themselves, in the middle yourself trying to get work done with other areas, or on the frontline just wanting some consistent messages.

There’s a reason this is often so hard, and one I can give you right upfront – it’s because we can’t see it!  Let me explain….

The social system relationships in most workplaces

As I did in my article and video on the Disgruntled Masses, this piece relies on the Organic Systems Framework of Barry Oshry.  It’s simply great stuff…look into it.  You can watch him talk on YouTube too.

The two types of relationship for this article are the Top/Bottom relationship, and the End/Middle/End relationship.  Remember, these words don’t refer to the value of the people involved, it’s about their role in the social system, and you play different roles in different social systems, and different roles in the same social system.

Combining these two types of relationship for organisations, we get this very complex diagram:

Tops are in the role of taking accountability for the whole system’s viability in the environment, Bottoms are in the role of being asked to do stuff with less say in what that that stuff is, and Middles are between the two ‘ends’ of Tops and Bottoms.

Hold this thought for now.

The processes of social systems

As well as relationships, social systems in Barry Oshry’s setup also consist of processes – the way in which we move, I call them the ‘forces’ that are in play.  The processes are divided in two ways, which are

  • Part / Whole – the former looking at actors within the system, the latter being about the whole system
  • Power / Love – the former being the need to express, be ourselves, and the latter being the need to come together, to be in a group.

Putting these together, you get every consultant’s favourite thing…the 4-box diagram!

The framework gives us a word and a nifty icon that describes each process in action, they are

  • Individuate (part/power) – when the parts express their power and do their own thing.  Think of individuals letting things rip on their own
  • Integrate (part/group) – when the parts come together to become more than individuals.  Classic team stuff.
  • Differentiate (whole/power) – when a full system is able to have differences so it can couple well to its environment.  Think of organisations with different departments, and another great one are animals (including you) where we have up there for thinkin’ and down there for dancin’
  • Homogenise (whole/group) – when the full system has enough stuff the same that it can still be a whole system.  At work, these are the IT system, uniforms, creating a shared culture, that sort of thing.  And in a body, it’s the one blood type, DNA, all that stuff.

The big trick is that we need all of the processes working together in order for the whole thing to be viable.  Take one out, and it only takes a moment’s thought to see the effect.  For example – all homogenising and no differentiation means you lose touch with the nuances of the environment, but all differentiation and no homogenising means you are no longer a whole show, so you lose the advantages that come with that.

The tearing of the Middle

So what does all of this have to do with cross-functional work?  Work of this nature is most often coordinated by those in the role of ‘Middle’.  This can work fine…until the pressure’s on.  Remember, these are roles in the system that are caught between two ends, and what Barry Oshry has observed over decades is that such roles end up being ‘torn’.  As in being torn between two ends.

Being torn creates natural responses.  Because we can’t serve everyone, we tend to make a choice about who we will serve – either the Tops (getting disappointed in the frontline not changing according to the strategy), or the Bottoms (defending the frontline against having to change).  Either way is going to cause pain.

(Sometimes we even choose to try to serve both, which leads to blowout; or create a bureaucracy around us to avoid serving anyone!)

The Middle goes vertical

Because of being in a situation of being torn, those in the Middle roles will do the social system process of Individuate.  This is a logical response to being torn, to make sure that, in an effort to still be useful, power is used to serve either Tops or Bottoms simply to survive. 

Another way to look at this is that Middles become very ‘vertical’.  White-knuckling through the torn situation by at least making sure that their bit of the organisation works and that either their boss or their people are happy, maybe even both! 

Here’s what doesn’t happen in the torn situation….Integrating.  The process of part/group.  There’s simply no time.  It seems ridiculous to worry about this under so much pressure.   Colleagues are treated politely but are seen at best as allies to be engaged when necessary, and at worst as enemies.

And because there is no Integrating happening, such a thing as being part of a ‘middle system’ simply does not even exist as a concept!  It’s crazy talk.  Remember, what we see as real is more influenced by our role in the social system more than anything else…so in a ‘torn’ environment, the only thing that seems real is the vertical. 

No integrating means no coming together.  And no coming together means there is no chance for there to actually be a Whole!

And there you have it.  These:

The Middle System

What organisations need for viability is a ‘middle system’, meaning a group of individuals in the middle that become a differentiated and homogeneous whole that together takes on the role of running and improving the organisation.

Having a middle system lets the so-called ‘Tops’ get on with their job of making sure the place is strategically viable in its environment for a long time to come, and the frontline to get the clarity of work and the resources needed so they can do a job they will hopefully not mind…and perhaps even be proud of.

(And before you cry “that’s too hierarchical”, two things: 1) this only refers to the decisions those in various roles are charged with making, not to who is involved; and 2) the Top/Middle/Bottom thing occurs as a fractal throughout the organisation.)

How to get the Middle System going.

It’s simple (which doesn’t mean easy).  We need to integrate

Here’s the weird part – you already know how to get a group of people to integrate.  Teamwork. There might even be a book or two on it 😊.    The great part about Barry Oshry’s framework is;

  1. We can get over feeling bad that we can’t do cross-functional stuff, that we have silos.  Decades of work have shown that these are natural if we don’t do something about it.  Just like it’s natural that not having gutters will eventually see the walls of the house decay.
  2. It gives us a conceptual framework that makes bothering to do the teamwork thing actually worthwhile.  Becoming a Middle System, for those that actually want to be useful, is well worth the effort.

Barry lays out some ideas in his various books, my way of getting integration to occur is pretty straightforward, the work I help clients with is how and what to have these conversations about.

What’s needed is:

  • A shared mission – something the Middle System is looking to achieve that involves everyone and that is actually worthwhile.
  • Coordination – not a sexy term, but all of the things that go into making things fit together.  Roles, who decides what, schedules…all that boring stuff.  It’s needed, and usually avoided because it’s hard until we’ve established…
  • Human connection.  Yes, that’s means actually getting to know each other.  Go to lunch.  Find out whether your colleagues have a dog.  Why they bother to show up at work.  It’s not group therapy, but without some sort of connection beyond tangible deliverables, the coordination and shared mission won’t happen.

We can learn from the kids…

So, make that monthly lunch a priority.  And no ‘Tops’ allowed – you can’t be a middle system if energy is going to leak out vertically.

Bringing it home

Introduce the idea of the Middle System into your organisation.  Go through Barry Oshry’s framework – whenever I do with clients, people see themselves in it every time, and there’s always that “yep, that’s us” laughter.   

Then we get to work on the shared mission, coordination and human connection.

A powerful Middle System is a win/win/win for organisations and the people in it.

We just have to see it first!

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