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    shapes of innovation

    Group dynamics are always a fascinating subject to anyone that works in user experience, particularly those of us that run process with groups of stakeholders, developers and/or creatives.

    One particularly intriguing aspect of looking at how groups function is how and why some companies are able to move and innovate and others get caught and stymied as they attempt to move their offerings forward.

    As a design strategist, I work with stakeholders to determine business requirements that make sense for their products and development. In that capacity, I have a chance to interact up and down through the organizational tree with groups and teams of various sizes.

    Over the past couple of years a few patterns have started emerge that have helped me become faster at improvising. It’s critical to not only recognize the lines of power and where the forward movement comes from in the company and teams, but also to recognize where we can position ourselves to be the most helpful in facilitating the collaboration.

    All of our relationships have shapes. We interact in millions of shapes every day. See if you can recognize any of the following shapes in your business life.

    Single point
    The simplest shape could be a single point. Occasionally we do act in isolation in our business environments, with tasks that only we can accomplish. This is rarely a point that generates significant movement for the company however. That comes as we begin to interact.

    There are CEO’s and team leads that retain a singular point of focus in a group dynamic, but as we’ll see a bit later, these people are rarely exclusive emperors of interaction but rather the focal point of much more complex shapes.

    Line (2-points)
    A similarly simple relationship is one with one other person. We see this at work in companies with strong dual leaders who have complementary skills.

    You can cover more ground in a company or process if you have a strong and flexible relationship between the two parties. The success of this style of relationship shape is often found in creative and engineering teams as seen in pair programming, co-leaders of teams and co-owners of smaller companies.

    If the two parties are constantly agitating and fighting each other for control then the situation tends to become polarized and not set up for innovation and collaboration.

    When this sort of situation arises then typically it requires the use of either a single higher point to referee and redefine areas of responsibility or a triangle to provide one more person to stabilize the back and forth and broker a settlement.

    Triangles (3-points)
    Triangles are one of the more complex business shapes to maintain. While they have enormous energy (think Bermuda Triangle) they are also the shape that requires the most creativity and flexibility to maintain.

    Triangles are almost always developed when you are in the midst of large movement in your company. Most start-ups have a wide variety of triangle relationships – think: head of marketing, engineering and sales, etc. Because these relationships tend to be more malleable than line relationships they can definitely create a large amount of movement and energy.

    With everything changing all the time in this relationship shape, it can be tough to have enough stability to get things done. You don’t want a company or team that is ALWAYS in reactive or even creative mode. At some point you have to get stuff done.

    If the triangle has one very strong stable point to anchor or a couple of calmer points with one dynamic member then this shape can work very well indeed. I have also seen 3 people with equal ability to survive the unknown make an extraordinary triangle relationship work.

    Square (4-points)
    By far the most stable configuration, this shape is somewhat unusual but can often be found in well-established companies. I’ve also been lucky enough to observe a start-up culture that was established by 4 very experienced and talented individuals.

    The square is very stable and versatile for working with a wide variety of people. It’s likely to be made up of people with a mix of communication strategies that mesh well. A highly functioning square group can cover much more ground and influence a much larger group of people if they are able to run separate teams.

    This shape is most likely to move slowly. Many decisions are kept in limbo as the group discusses them. There is rarely a huge sense of urgency when this is a very stable and well-established shape, thus creating a situation where too much organization and stability doesn’t require growth and change.

    A powerful square group can keep its capacity for change by encouraging the frequent breakout of the group on projects into other shapes. Adding a fifth to the mix who can challenge the status quo and develop triangles and lines with members of the groups is highly effective as well. This is an excellent position for a consultant to take on.

    More complex shapes
    The number and types of shapes you can find in your company are infinite. I’ve worked with a company that had a very strong base of 5-people. One part of the company got caught in a square pattern but the dynamic nature of the strong lead immediately broke that stalemate as soon as I pointed it out. This was a very functional company that continues to innovate.

    May Pole
    Earlier I mentioned that single point shapes really are usually some form of a more complex ecosystem. I’ve seen many cases of a visionary and strong CEO that ran the teams and companies around him as a sort of “May Pole” configuration. People had leeway but were required to run very fundamental patterns around his strategic vision.

    Another style that I’ve only seen once but was very fascinated by is a single point “Funnel” shape. More of a top-down system, the person in the center takes all of the input and work in the people and teams and funnels them toward a common goal. These tend to be people who are very adept at collaboration and implementation.

    I should point out that all of this is made up. There are no hard and fast rules here, but rather the idea of this post is to let you in on the game of finding some of the business relationship shapes in your team or company that are not working for you. The more observant you can become on the underlying patterns in your company, the more opportunities you’ll have to make truly comprehensive change.

    What business and group shapes have you observed? What other characteristics would you attach to each shape? Any other solutions you’ve used to balance a certain situations?

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